Socrates: Serving the community

“Part of the fascination of Plato’s Apology consists in the fact that it presents a man who takes extraordinary steps throughout his life to be of the greatest possible value to his community but whose efforts, far from earning him the gratitude and honour he thinks he deserves, lead to his condemnation and death at the hands of the very people he seeks to serve.”

Richard Kraut: Socrates. Encyclopedia Britannica, no date.

Truly, Socrates wants to help to improve his community’s life, but he only makes himself enemies. He showed for instance, that the politicians think that they are very wise, but in fact they are not. One, though not mentioned by name, is extremely outstanding in Plato’s work, the democratic politician Anytus, who is also referred to in Apology 21b ff.:

“I went to one of those who had a reputation for wisdom, thinking that there, if anywhere, I should prove the utterance wrong and should show the oracle ‘This man is wiser than I, but you said I was wisest.’ So examining this man – for I need not call him by name, but it was one of the public men with regard to whom I had this kind of experience, men of Athens – and conversing with him, this man seemed to me to seem to be wise to many other people and especially to himself, but not to be so; and then I tried to show him that he thought he was wise, but was not. As a result, I became hateful to him and to many of those present […].”

Translated by Harold North Fowler. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 1. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1966.

So here we have on the one hand the masses who have a high regard of that very politician on the one hand, and Socrates who debunked him. So, through examining the politician, he fulfilled a divine mission in showing that the great men who think that they are wise, were not wise at all, but only seemed to be wise. We can use a generalization here, because Apology, 22a writes “those who had the most reputation seemed to me to be almost the most deficient, as I investigated at the god’s behest, and others who were of less repute seemed to be superior men in the matter of being sensible” [ibid.], so we have to assume that this does not only go to Anytus, since Socrates explains that the same happened to him, when conversing with the other politicians as well: those who thought of themselves in the highest esteem, turned out to be of the least competence in terms of wisdom, according to Socrates. Therefore, we can say that Socrates himself had a low esteem towards politics.

Therefore, we can see a critical stance of politics in this passage, as the politicians, such as Anytus, are rather destroying the well-being of the state (which Plato shows through Socrates’ execution) than to make it better. So Socrates is tired of politics:

“Socrates […] in the Apology, as Foucault points out, describes his divine mission of speaking the truth to his fellow citizens as turning away from politics. (31c-32a)”

Francisco J. Gonzalez: Socrates on Philosophy and Politics: Ideas y valores LXI (149), 2012, 103-123, cited from p. 120.

But of course, this does not mean that Plato’s philosophy is not political, and even further, it does not mean that Socrates, even though he refused to take part in politics was not political at all:

“It should also be said that to speak of a tension between philosophy and politics is not to deny that philosophy is inherently political in the specific sense in which Socratic philosophy is presented as political in the Apology and the Gorgias, i.e., as benefitting others as well as oneself and thereby representing a sort of rule over oneself as well as over others.”

Gonzalez, 2012: 109.

In contrast to the majority which was ignorant and blind, Socrates was willing to fulfill his mission, but to do so, he had to educate the people in reflecting of what they thought to know, whether their assumed knowledge was true or not. Furthermore, we can see the clear opposition of Plato for the governmental system of Athens in this work. Athens was a democratic state in which every male citizen, no matter how wise or stupid he was, could participate. For Socrates and Plato, this was probably a pure horror, as both were in favor for an oligarchy: only those who are worthy should reign. Plato undermines it in his Republic with the philosopher king in which he proposes an expertocratic model, where only the very experts are allowed to make decisions so that the best outcome is ensured, while the populace has to be restrained. (Though his Republic is not really meant to be that political, but the state is only an allegory to explain the soul.) And if it was not pure horror to Plato as we take too much of his political views from The Republic, then at least, we can say that he saw no benefit in democracies. Trabbatoni writes on Plato’s dialogue The Statesman:

“In this dialogue democracy is said to cause little good and little evil and, because of this, to be not only far better than tyranny, but also than other imperfect forms of lawless constitution (303b). According to Plato, the law is precisely the corrective device in order to avoid this danger.”

Franco Trabattoni: Essays on Plato’s Epistemology. Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2016, p. 285

Thus, Plato wants to show through the figure of Socrates in his defense speech (which is not the historical speech, but Plato’s own masterpiece though parts of it were probably said in a similar way by Socrates himself in his actual speech) that the democratic politicians, such as Anytus, and the democratic system does not bring forth decision-makers with the best competences and capabilities, but rather imposers which defile the society: they think of themselves to be extraordinary wise and even seem to be so to a majority, but this is nothing than an outside appearance. Plato actually takes up this very issue when he talks of the “just man” in The Republic. [To understand the issue turning around the “just man”, see Pierre Grimes: Wisdom Literature in the Platonic Tradition – Lecture 61: Plato’s Republic (Part 1). Opening Mind Academy, 1997; see also Timo Schmitz: On Plato’s Good and the tripartite soul. In: Timo Schmitz: A Divinely Way to Philosophy, Vol. 1. Trier & Vachendorf: Graf Berthold Verlag, 2022.] Thus, Apology also opens up a very important demand of Plato: justice. It is not an easy issue in Plato’s philosophy, because Socrates acts just by obeying the law and following the verdict. On the other hand, the verdict as given by the Athenians is not just. Yet, Plato makes clear in the Crito that injustice ought not to be answered with injustice. This very thought is also taken up in the sermon of the mount:

“Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.”

Matthew 5:38-42, KJV.

Finally, Socrates’ fate can also be clearly found in the Analogy of the Cave of Plato’s Republic, where the one who saw the truth returns to the cage and gets lynched when he let others know his insights, since they know nothing but the shadows which they already take to be true. So even the greatest man who serve the community might receive injustice by their community members, while some of those who conduct injustice (such as Anytus did) enjoy a great reputation. The ones we regard to be the wisest are not always the wisest, and the ones of who we think in the best way, are not always the best. Some great men only receive their honor long after their time. But also the great men were not flawless: Socrates was perceived to be arrogant by some, his behavior in trial had to lead to his execution if we follow Xenophon’s Apology, in which Socrates refuses to demand for a penalty, as this would mean to him that he was guilty. (Xenophon, Apology 23) He could have probably saved his life by demanding a penalty after he was convicted guilty, as his refusal to demand a penalty on his own led to the conviction of the penalty demanded by his accusers. 

Timo Schmitz, 17 August 2022

See also:

Warum wurde Sokrates angeklagt? (Euthyphron 2d, Apologie 19b) (in German)

Äwablekj äwa Platon (in Plautdietsch)

Apologie von Sokrates, 17a – 28a (in Plautdietsch)

Photo Credit: Arno Senoner – Unsplash

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