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Socrates and authority in the apology and crito

This is the best introductory text to the study of Political Philosophy. 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.

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?

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?

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.

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.

Although this has been enormously influential over the centuries, at least over the last century and a half, you have to ask yourself: Did Plato want us to read the dialogue this way? Note that Socrates never defends himself by reference to the doctrine of unlimited free 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.

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 socrates and authority in the apology and crito about the value of freedom of speech in general. 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.

Who has the right to teach, who has the right to educate? 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.

Legal authority

It is not merely Socrates who is on trial. Socrates intends to put the democracy of Athens itself on trial. So, the ensuing debate within the dialogue can be read as a struggle again over who has title to rule. Is it the people? 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.

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. 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 socrates and authority in the apology and crito 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: 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? 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.

And, Socrates was himself not above suspicion. 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. 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.

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

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. 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.

This was the day before there were intense forms of jury selection, where they would ask people: 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.

  • You should ponder the following question;
  • Under Pericles, Athens had built the famous Acropolis;
  • 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.

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 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. Which one legislates for mankind at the time of Socrates? 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. So, what is at stake in this quarrel between Socrates and the poetic tradition that he alludes to? Anyone remember that from high school? 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.

Socrates and authority in the apology and crito 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. 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. 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.

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.

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. 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.

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?

An object lesson for all later professors, I would say, who teach nonsense [chuckles]. 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?

Main points

Again, investigating the things aloft, under the ground. He is what we would call today a scientist, a natural scientist. Socrates tells us that when he was told this he expressed disbelief in the Oracle.

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.