This is Socrates. Socrates was the first of the great Athenian philosophers of that city’s Golden Age, and thus gets blamed for pretty much everything that came afterwards. To be fair, Socrates asked for it.
Or so it seems, at least. We don’t know all that much about the real Socrates. Unlike Plato and Aristotle, none of his writings survived, if he even had any. Instead, we have to rely on a lot of other people—namely, Plato, whose dialogues usually involve Socrates making fools of several debate partners. Because of this, it can be hard to separate the real Socrates from Plato’s rather idealized version of him, and to know which ideas are original to Socrates, and which ones Plato might be sticking in his mouth.
Still, there are worse things that could happen to a person than having Plato become one’s interpreter. Plato quite clearly loved his mentor, and did everything in his power to immortalize his thought. Seeing as we’re still talking about him 2400 years later, it worked out pretty well.
Socrates was nicknamed “the gadfly” because, much like small annoying insects, he went around bothering and questioning everyone. While Plato and Aristotle founded academies and spent much of their time with people with somewhat similar interests, Socrates would chat up anyone. No one’s presuppositions were safe from Socrates, and that is what made him so radical: while he clearly enjoyed spirited debate with other philosophical folks, he wasn’t one to retreat to some ivory tower.
Unsurprisingly, not everyone likes people who go around questioning everything, and Socrates made himself some enemies. Eventually, he was put on trial for promoting false gods and corrupting the youth. (People do tend to get rather defensive over their faith and their children, even in a city like Athens, which was incredibly tolerant for the time.) His critics accused him of sophistry, or the preaching of confusing immoral nonsense designed to undermine the order of things.
Socrates was tried by a jury of several hundred Athenians, and he put on a show. He professed his own ignorance, and explained how he’d devoted his life to resolving the paradox of how he could be the wisest man on earth (as an oracle had once called him) if he also knew how ignorant he was. He played games with his accusers and was completely unrepentant for his alleged crimes, jokingly suggesting his “punishment” should involve free meals for the services he’s offered. Even after he’d been convicted, the general assumption was that he would just run off into exile, and the Athenian authorities were quite content to look the other way and let it happen. Much to everyone’s annoyance, however, Socrates had different ideas.
If we are to believe Plato, Socrates’ refusal to run stemmed directly from his relationship with Athens. He had no desire to make a mockery of its legal system, and he couldn’t imagine a contented life in another city. Only in Athens could he find as much freedom to pontificate as he did, and it was only because a substantial number of its citizens knew of his sincerity that he was allowed to go as far as he did in challenging everyone’s assumptions. (The vote to convict him was a narrow one, and he had plenty of people who were willing to fight for him.) People aren’t really sure if he was a supporter or a critic of the Athenian democracy. Some of his pupils and supporters hadn’t held it in very high esteem (including Plato, with his philosopher-kings), and one could easily see Socrates as a martyr for regime change, trying to show how perverse the Athenian system was. (How could majority rule be any good if it sentenced the wisest man on earth to death?) In my completely un-expert opinion, however, this only gets at part of the truth; Socrates is too complex to be a political revolutionary, and nothing more. He probably did intend to point out some of the flaws in democracy—he was an eternal critic, after all—but in spite of that, his loyalties never flinched. His refusal to leave stemmed from his love affair with his city of Athens, even though he knew it was far from perfect.
He didn’t have much desire to grow old and wither away, either. Socrates saw his body as something of a prison for his mind and his soul, and he believed that a life lived in accordance to virtue was far more important than a long life. The ultimate proof of this, he figured, was a willing embrace of death. And so Socrates drank the poisonous hemlock juice and died at the age of 70.
By most standards, Socrates’ choice was a crazy one, and akin to suicide. The Greeks found him just as nuts as we would today. But if he’d done the “rational” thing, we wouldn’t remember him all that much. Socrates’ scheme (or, perhaps more accurately, Plato’s scheme) was to suggest that humans should hold themselves to a higher standard. Socrates’ story is a celebration of the power of civilization. He needed a city like Athens in order to live the life he did, and only in a culture that respected his freedom to explore great ideas would he be immortalized. Humans are flawed, certainly, but they have some potential to move toward justice, and the difficulty of the project in no way invalidates it.
It’s easy to throw stones at Athens today. We can point out the abuses of slavery, the subjugation of women, and the failed military campaigns, and make a pretty good case that the ancient Athenians weren’t all that enlightened. We could gripe about how that one city has come to dominate the foundations of Western philosophy ever since; isn’t it just a lucky accident that the thought of one city wound up being perpetuated across the known world by the conquering armies of Alexander?
Perhaps. Other parts of the world developed their own robust philosophies, and some of them survive in some form. The Athenians of the fifth century before Christ had plenty of influences, both Greek and non-Greek. Still, it’s hard to fight the notion that something different was happening in Athens when Socrates began his project.
Aeschylus, an Athenian playwright who predated Socrates somewhat, might have the answer. In his Oresteia trilogy, Athens is just like any other place, and is ruled by the Furies, who are rather shrill goddesses whose idea of justice always involves vengeance and endless cycles of violence. Thankfully, Athena, the goddess for whom Athens is named, sweeps in and spares the hero, Orestes, from such a nasty fate. Reason comes into being, trials are henceforth conducted by juries instead of vindictive goddesses, and everyone goes home happy. Athens put on Aeschylus’ plays every year as part of a big civic festival. The Athenians were more than a community of producers trying to sustain themselves, or even an honor-bound band of brothers pledged to defending said community; they were willing to reach for something even greater.
The Athenians didn’t get it right all the time, as they showed with Socrates’ trial. But at least they tried. In 399 B.C., that alone made them revolutionary.
Image from New Religion and Culture Daily. The painting is called “The Death of Socrates” by Jacques-Luis David.