“Theorists have not been at a loss to explain; but they differ.”
Aleister Crowley, Book Four, Part One
Liberal philosopher Karl Popper (1902-1994) portrayed Plato as possibly the world’s first fascist, and one often hears people (who have probably never read a single word written by Popper, nor even know his name) mindlessly repeating something similar. Plato also has his defenders, including even Marxists, like Sean Sayers, as well as non-Marxists like Leo Strauss (1899-1973) and his followers (yes – the people who brought us Neoconservatism and the invasion of Iraq).
Socrates, however, continues to stir even more controversy and disagreement than his most famous student – although it is easier to find actual detractors of Plato than of his teacher. Popper, even while condemning Plato as a totalitarian, lauded Socrates as a friend of democracy. Nietzsche had imagined Socrates to be his own “greatest, and closest, philosophical rival”, while despising Plato (almost as much as he despised Christianity). Strauss, for his part, devoted most of his life to developing a theory of political philosophy largely centered on Socrates and his trial. Gregory Vlastos (1907-1991) spent most of his life chasing after a “real” Socrates that was largely a figment of his own imagination.
In 1988 leftist author I.F. Stone garnered attention by claiming that Socrates so despised democracy that he eagerly sought martyrdom in order to bring shame on it. Soon after Stone’s book, Thomas Brickhouse and Nicholas Smith (together in their Socrates On Trial) along with C.D.C. Reeve (separately, in his Socrates in the Apology) published major book length studies putting forward a new (and deeply flawed – though not as badly as Stone’s) interpretation that tries to turn Plato’s Apology into just an ordinary piece of forensic rhetoric, rather than a daring, and soaring, defense of philosophy itself. And just recently the general public was subjected to screaming headlines declaring that “Socrates’ trial and execution was completely justified, says new study“!!! Srsly.
During his lifetime, opinion about Socrates was even more divided than it is today. By the time he was brought to trial, at the age of 70, he had already been the target of a vilification campaign, led by some of Athens’ most prominent citizens, that had gone on for a quarter of a century. Among some Athenians, however, and especially among the young, he was wildly popular, even adored. Of course if it hadn’t been for this popularity, his enemies would most likely have simply ignored him – or, if they had bothered to have him killed, it would have passed without notice and we certainly wouldn’t still be discussing it today. Of course we are still discussing it 2400 years later. And in another 2400 years there will likely (hopefully!) still be passionate debates about Socrates and his trial, while very few, if any, current day persons or events will be thought worthy of even passing consideration by then.
Socrates was mercilessly and masterfully ridiculed in Aristophanes’ The Clouds, which was entered into the comedy competition of the City Dionysia in the year 423 BC, when Socrates was 45 years old. One story holds that Socrates was in attendance during the performance, and at one point stood up and cheerfully took a bow while the play was in progress. This was just one year (or possibly even less) after Plato was born, as well as being the time of a one-year truce in the ongoing war between Athens and Sparta (a detailed “chronology of the historical Socrates” can be found here).
The year before The Clouds was first performed, Socrates had distinguished himself by his heroism during the Battle of Delium (in which Athens was defeated by the Boeotians, who were allies of Sparta). Plato’s dialogue on courage, The Laches, is named for the Athenian general in command at that battle, who praised Socrates as a model of bravery [181b]. According to Plato, Socrates was also a good friend of the famous Athenian general Nicias. We also know that Socrates was very close with the most famous, and most infamous, of all of Athens’ military leaders, Alcibiades.
It is difficult to assess the extent and quality of Socrates’ fame and/or notoriety during these years. Aristophanes’ play came in third (out of three) in the competition when it debuted in 423, which could signal, among other things, that it’s anti-Socrates message was not well received, or possibly that the viciousness of its humor was not appreciated (that is, regardless of its target). But Aristophanes continued to work on the play, revising it several times and circulating it privately in manuscript form, which indicates both that there was an audience for it, and that the author was determined to reach and cultivate that audience. In that way The Clouds might actually bear comparison to Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, which came out at a time when George W. Bush was still quite popular, but which nevertheless resonated strongly with a significant portion of the population.
We know that Aristophanes continued polishing The Clouds possibly as late as 417. Then in 415 Athens launched the disastrous Sicilian expedition. One night just before the ships were launched, nearly all of the Herms (ithyphallic statues of the God Hermes – the God of travel) of the city were desecrated. That blasphemous act, combined with the military debacle that then proceeded to unfold in Sicily, resulted in a climate of recriminations and near-hysteria (in the city whose patron was the Goddess of Reason and Wisdom). At least five of Plato’s dialogues are named for associates of Socrates’ who were arrested during this time. Soon afterwards, Socrates was once again attacked in a play by Aristophanes, The Birds.
In the coming years Athens went from defeat to defeat in her war with Sparta. Even when they won a victory in the Battle of Arginusae, the generals who commanded that battle were put on trial, accused of failing to come to the aid and defense of their own wounded men, as well as failing to to see to the burial of their dead. What followed was a show trial that violated Athens’ own laws. Socrates, by luck of the draw, served on the presiding committee of the Council, where he was the only member, out of 50, who raised his voice against the way in which the proceedings were conducted. That was all in the year 406 – Athens never recovered from her “victory” at Arginusae, and within two years the Spartans were camped outside the city walls.
Under siege, the citizens of Athens elected a pro-Spartan government hoping to save themselves from the worst. During this time an attempt was made to pass a law forbidding Socrates from speaking to anyone under the age of 30, a chilling testimony to his popularity among the youth. That failed attempt to silence him also showed that he had enemies among the pro-Spartan camp, although it is usually assumed that Socrates himself had strong “Laconophilic” tendencies.
Political turmoil in Athens continued for years. As was the case with the pro-Spartan crowd, Socrates had both supporters and detractors among the “democratic party” (which was also the “war party”, the ones who had enthusiastically supported the disastrous war with Sparta). One of Socrates’ closest and most devoted friends was Chaerephon, who was considered an especially hot-headed democrat. But when the pro-Spartan “oligarchs” were defeated in a “pro-democracy” uprising, Socrates’ democratic enemies were determined to succeed where his oligarchic enemies had failed. Socrates’ friend Chaerephon was among those who fought to bring the “democrats” back to power, although he had died before Socrates was charged and brought to trial.
One interpretation of the trial and execution of Socrates is that it represented an opportunistic move by his long time enemies who seized what they saw as a chance to settle an old score during a time of political instability and high emotions. In a word, Socrates was presented as a “scapegoat” for the plumetting fortunes of what had once been the Athenian “Empire”. He had insulted, and quite publicly, many of Athens’ most illustrious citizens with his blunt and often disarmingly folksy style of philosophizing. And, a true democrat at heart, he had also wandered among Athens’ less aristocratic citizens, subjecting shoe-cobblers and others to the same public humiliation, with a charm that was not appreciated by many. During his “philosophic mission”, as it is often referred to, it is said that he even suffered physical abuse at times, in response to his probing questions.
The important thing here is that Socrates was neither universally hated nor universally admired. He divided people. So once again we find yet another parallel with Martin Luther King. However powerful his enemies were, we can never forget that his supporters were also numerous, and some of them were quite prominent, and they even came from across the “political spectrum” of the day. Some indication of just how divided people were is given by the jury vote. Socrates insisted on mounting an unapologetic and thoroughly “philosophical” defense, and he even lectured the jury, warning them against the negative results to their souls if they acted unjustly and convicted him, while haughtily assuring them that he himself was unconcerned about what they might do to his body. And yet despite essentially daring them to convict him, they almost didn’t.
When it comes to Socrates and King, we cannot rely on the opinions of others. Even, or perhaps especially, those who praise them, often offer little of substance, since they are mostly engaging in Santaclausification. And, besides, the essence of both of their messages was a direct, and even intimate, appeal to the intelligence and the conscience of the individual. Nor can we take refuge in “taking sides”. Socrates, as already discussed, divided the two main political camps in Athens, in both of which he had ardent supporters and committed enemies. And in King’s famous letter from a Birmingham jail he was taking to task precisely those who claimed to be on his side. We must decide, then, for ourselves.
As Seneca wrote:
Away with the opinions of mankind, always uncertain, always a split vote.
Yes, I do not change my opinion: avoid the many, avoid the few, avoid even the individual.