How to ask awkward questions and annoy people

In his endless pursuit of Truth, Socrates made many enemies. Yet his questioning outlook remains invaluable to understanding the present.

Angus Kennedy

Topics Politics

This article is republished from the September 2010 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

Diogenes Laertius, in his Lives of the Philosophers, tells us that Socrates, unsatisfied with the natural philosophy of his day, ‘began to enter upon moral speculations, both in his workshop and in the marketplace’. He devoted his life to investigating what it was for a man to live well or badly.

Socrates’ relentless questioning of received moral wisdom and authority, his struggle to apprehend real existence in consciousness, would make him many enemies. Laertius goes on to tell us that ‘very often, while arguing and discussing points that arose, he was treated with great violence and beaten, and pulled about, and laughed at and ridiculed by the multitude’. The great Athenian comedian Aristophanes ridiculed Socrates in his Clouds as ‘an artful fellow, a blusterer, a villain, a knave with one hundred faces, cunning, intolerable, a gluttonous dog’. In Plato’s Meno, Socrates offends a man called Anytus by suggesting that even great men such as Themistocles and Thucydides were not capable of teaching their sons to be good. Anytus warns him to be careful, that he is ‘too ready to speak evil of men’. It was Anytus who brought the prosecution against Socrates in 399 BC, on charges of impiety and corrupting the youth, which led to Socrates’ execution.

Was Socrates really so intolerable? Intolerant of Athenian democracy’s belief that the many had the wisdom to judge, was he a threat to democracy itself? Was he guilty of asking too many questions? The debate about Socrates has raged continuously since his death. The birthplace of democracy, famed for introducing freedom of speech and equality before the law, had executed one of the first philosophers for the crime, essentially, of holding certain beliefs and for trying to educate his fellow citizens in morality. IF Stone argues in his 1989 classic, The Trial of Socrates, that he martyred himself to make his opposition to Athenian democracy immortal. But that implies that we should see Socrates as a hero of free speech at the expense of the ideal of democracy. So was Athens just a sham, a democracy in name only, a xenophobic and sexist system resting its leisured elbows on the broken backs of slave labourers, as many now claim?

Socrates’ scepticism about democracy is certainly reflected in the view of his pupil, Plato: ‘This [democracy], then, seems likely to be the fairest of States, being an embroidered robe which is spangled with every sort of flower. And just as women and children think a variety of colours to be of all things most charming, so there are many men to whom this State, which is spangled with the manners and characters of mankind, will appear to be the fairest of States.’

Bettany Hughes’ new book, The Hemlock Cup, seeks to reopen the debate about Socrates in light of new archaeological evidence and the latest knowledge of Athenian society. Her aim is to situate Socrates in the Athens as he lived and experienced it. It’s an ambitious book, taking us through the 70 years of Socrates’ life during one of the most exciting moments in history: the birth of freedom, democracy, science, philosophy and drama. She fleshes out the birth of Western civilisation with the story of one’s man life. It’s not quite history, it’s not quite biography; rather it’s an attempt dramatically to place Socrates against the backdrop of his time. As such it can be a little word-breathy at times, rushing through a vast wealth of material and quotations, perhaps painting the picture a little too brightly. Nonetheless, its scholarship is impeccable and Hughes’ command of the sources daunting.

The Hemlock Cup is not the only recent work to re-examine the life of Socrates. Emily Wilson’s The Death of Socrates, published in 2007, noted how his ‘strangeness seemed to present itself as a criticism of the values of ordinary people’. Robin Waterfield’s Why Socrates Died, published last year, viewed him as a scapegoat for an Athens brought to the brink of destruction by civil war and intergenerational conflict. For Waterfield, Athens was a city desperate to renew itself through the sacrifice of a critic of democracy and a ‘morally subversive teacher’ long tainted by his association with oligarchs such as Alcibiades and Critias, one of the Thirty Tyrants (the Spartan-imposed oligarchy that ruled Athens after the Peloponnesian War). Most recently, Daniel Boyarin’s Socrates and the Fat Rabbis suggested that the conversational form of Socratic philosophy, the dialogue, was just a cynical cover for a monomaniacal pursuit of authoritative, otherworldly, Truth. In other words, the Socratic method was really about reducing opponents to silence in the name of an inhuman rationalism.

Hughes, conversely, presents Socrates as very human, very much a man of the people, equally at home in a carpenter’s workshop as he was in the symposia of the rich and powerful. He treated all equally in his search for the truth and his message was that ‘there can be no good, even in a democracy, if each individual is not as good as he can possibly be’. This argument, that all that mattered was care for one’s soul, is, she points out, possibly the one thing that the young democracy could not rightly accept. It was, in effect, a rejection of the people in the name of the individual and conscience. Only Socrates was wise – he tells us in Plato’s Apology (an account of his defence during the trial) – because he knew he was ignorant. Everyone else was simply ignorant.

Hughes urges us to keep the Socratic flame alight, ‘above all to remember ta erotica – the “things of love”, the things that drive us to pursue the good’. She paints him as a very relevant reminder today that ‘eudaimonia (a kind of good karma, realising all your potential as a human being) is more important than jewels, baths, designer clothes, warships, dogma’. She endorses his critique of ‘the pursuit of plenty’ and ‘mindless materialism’, arguing that his key challenge is to suggest that it is ‘us’, not ‘them’, who can make things better. She even flirts with casting him as a bit of an anti-imperialist, a bit of a proto-feminist. In her telling, the city takes the criticism and the man is defended. She makes Socrates sound very like Jesus, ceaselessly haranguing the Pharisees. She even has Socrates echoing modern-day concerns about thoughtless consumerism making us miserable.

Is Hughes right that Socrates’ key message is that it is ‘us’, as individuals in pursuit of the good, that really matter, and not ‘them’? It sounds radical upon a first reading, but actually, in this context, ‘them’ is not the few imposing rules on the many which we must break in the name of conscience, but rather the many setting rules as to how society should live and organise itself. There is a danger of anachronism here in setting up Socrates as a hero of truth against the ignorance of the state. In Athens, the people were the state.

For Athenians, an engagement with public life was something to be celebrated. In The Peloponnesian War, Thucydides quotes the famous funeral oration of Pericles to the Athenian dead, including this acclamation of those who actively participate in the life of the state: ‘You will find united in the same persons an interest at once in private and in public affairs, and in others who give attention chiefly to business, you will find no lack of insight into political matters. For we alone regard the man who takes no part in public affairs, not as one who minds his own business, but as good for nothing.’

In the Apology, Socrates defends himself with the argument that the ‘true champion of justice, if he intends to survive even for a short time, must necessarily confine himself to private life and leave politics alone’. His love of wisdom, his philosophy, debarred him from entering public life as a rule. It’s a strange argument. He refrains from speaking out against what he regards as the ‘great many wrongs and illegalities’ of Athenian democracy on the grounds that it would mean his death; he needed to stay alive to pursue true justice. His principles were too strict to let him take part in politics. Although he occasionally broke this rule, Hughes notes that he did not speak out against the horrors perpetrated by Athens in the war with Sparta. He does not denounce the oligarchs who take power at the end of the war and he does not take sides with their democratic opponents. He chooses to stand outside politics and not to debate, publicly at least.

Socrates did not believe that equality, isonomia, provided an answer to the question of how to govern well, eunomia. He was with the democracy insofar as he agreed that the old inherited wisdom of the aristocrats was no answer to the problem of how to ground political and moral authority. But he was against it in rejecting the people as the basis for that authority. Instead he looked to the world outside politics, the world of skills and crafts, to try to find an answer. He introduced the concept of the expert as a solution to the problem of politics and democracy. Taking advantage of the intellectual freedom offered by democracy, Socrates argued that it should be the experts who decide how we should live: neither man nor the gods are the measure of all things but rather all things must be measured by the good, by Truth. In this sense he is guilty as charged: of impiety by introducing his own personal god, a new standard; and of corrupting the youth by rejecting the authority of fathers to be a measure and model of the good for their sons, of subverting education.

In the context of losing a long harsh war against Sparta and only just restoring democracy after a bitter civil war, the Athenians were perhaps struggling to work out what they had been fighting for. In that climate, they rounded on the man who had dedicated his whole life to telling them that they did not know how to live. Anytus, his son a victim of the Thirty, exemplifies so many fathers whose sons had died for they did not know what. Socrates seemed to be making a virtue out of not knowing. No wonder he might appear no longer tolerable. He was a man who shunned politics and who encouraged some of Athens’ brightest and best, like Plato, to follow him in turning their backs on it.

Even the form of the Apology, a Socratic dialogue that is not a dialogue, serves to make the argument that one cannot do philosophy in public; that there is a divorce and a hostility between politics and philosophy. Socrates is compelled by trial to speak in public and reminds us that he does not like to do so. He is no skilful speaker, he claims, unless that means skilful at speaking the truth. He rejects judicial rhetoric, the debate, the process by which the public tries to give meaning to the world.

Today, unlike Athens, the public is scarcely involved in politics. There is a pressing need for public intellectual debate of the kind that Socrates restricted to private individual discussion. The political sphere is relatively bereft of meaning and, in its place, undue importance is placed on personal happiness, individual lifestyle choices and the politics of identity. Although Socrates was the philosopher who introduced and died for the principle of subjective freedom, he did so in a spirit of great optimism about what humanity could achieve. He would have been a harsh critic of the way in which universals like justice, beauty or our common humanity are routinely cut down to size today by those who lecture about the dangers of instrumental rationality and the hubris of mankind. He would not have accepted that it is best for us to know our place and be humble.

We can use his legacy to help us decide what it is that we value, to help us believe that we can still make sense of the world and give meaning to our knowledge. We can still use the past to help us understand the present. As Hughes argues, ‘we must remember him. Because he is part of our heritage and because our lives can only be better if we keep pursuing knowledge, and “the good”‘. In the process we may be able to recreate ourselves. In his Politics, Aristotle wrote: ‘For it is possible that the many, though not individually good men, yet when they come together may be better, not individually but collectively.’ Amen to that.

Angus Kennedy is convenor of the Institute of Ideas Economy Forum

This article is republished from the September 2010 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life, by Bettany Hughes, is published by Jonathan Cape Ltd. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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