Is Socrates the ideal democratic citizen?
From time immemorial, the most penetrating students of politics from Plato, Aristotle, and Rousseau to Nietzsche have revealed and pondered the fundamental tension between politics and philosophy or, stated differently, order and freedom. A regime--any regime--must establish and maintain a measure of political order to sustain itself. If the regime is oppressive, however, the citizens are liable to revolt and destroy the conditions prerequisite to political order. But if the regime is unwilling or unable to shape and constrain the beliefs (and hence the actions) of its citizens, then it will fail in maintaining the conditions necessary for political order. (1) This tension is paramount not only in the foremost practical problem of founding the regime, but also in the vital educational problem of preserving the regime. If a regime is to persist, then it must devise, or exploit, a form of education that yields citizens willing and able to support the regime. Education is therefore a necessary foundation for political order as well as for philosophy, which for its flourishing depends upon the sustenance (and tolerance) that comes only in the presence of some degree of order.
Our democratic republic is an acute instance of the fundamental tension between order and liberty. It is the distinct character of our republic that the Founders justified an accent on personal liberties unparalleled in the history of political regimes. Yet, survival of the republic depends upon a degree of commitment of the American people to the rule of law and to the principles that justified an accent on personal liberties. Ultimately, if we are to perpetuate our democratic republic, then it is necessary to resolve or cope with the acute nature of this fundamental tension between order and liberty in our regime.
Our ability to resolve or cope with this fundamental tension is further complicated by social and historical circumstance. The poles of order and freedom that exist in a state of tension are never in a perfect state of balance because the conflicting needs of society are balanced and rebalanced as times and conditions change. An event such as the Civil Rights movement, the Cold War or September 11th creates a prevailing emphasis towards one pole or the other. Thus, the tension between order and freedom is always in flux.
Paraphrasing Willmoore Kendall, the problem of insuring the blessings of our democratic republic cannot be solved on the governmental level; it depends upon "we, the people," in the kind of people we are going to be. We alone are responsible for preventing the danger that arises from veering too far toward either too much order or too much freedom. At the heart of our Republic, then, is an educational problem. What kind of citizen should we strive to form that would support an effective democratic republic?
Recently, a consensus has formed around the opinion that Socrates is the ideal democratic citizen. We will refer to this consensus as the "standard position." (2) In this essay, we will examine the standard position's portrayal of Socrates as ideal democratic citizen. This essay attempts to show that the standard position's conception of the ideal democratic citizen is limited in its usefulness because it overemphasizes the good of unfettered criticism and pays too little attention to political moderation and self-restraint. A more robust conception of the citizen, one that accounts for a better balance between order and freedom, may be required to ensure the perpetuation of democracy and its commitments. This essay attempts to demonstrate that Socrates can act as an ideal to guide the formation of democratic citizens because he possesses the attributes that better balance the need for order and freedom in our democratic republic.
Socrates Is a Good Ideal for the Democratic Citizen
The standard position holds that Socrates is an ideal democratic citizen based on an assumption regarding the nature and needs of democracy and a portrayal of Socrates in which he possesses the desired attributes for democratic life. We must examine this assumption and portrayal of Socrates.
There is an assumption by this position that our democratic republic is best understood as a promising experiment engaged in by a particular set of human beings. (3) All political judgments are experiments based on considerations and judgments of the past, and they are in need of testing through scrutiny and deliberation. Democracy, this position assumes, is not founded upon absolute and eternal truths, such as the nature of man or reason or reality. Rather, commitment to a set of absolute and eternal truths as the foundations of democracy impedes the process of testing and deliberation upon judgments because it fosters an unwillingness to doubt.
For the democratic experiment to work, it needs citizens who not only possess the ability to doubt their own way of life but also doubt the political judgments and consensus of our democratic republic. The ability to doubt the beliefs, practices and traditions of our democratic republic, on this view, is necessary to prevent the formation of uncritical commitments to political judgments that could suspend the procedural nature of our democracy. In addition to unrelenting social criticism, though, this position believes citizens need to be able to examine critically with others the needs of democratic life. Once doubt suspends the habituation to a political judgment, then, it is necessary to create an environment for ongoing dialogue in order to develop the next useful hypothesis for our society. Accordingly, citizens must be able to participate with each other in perpetual doubt coupled with endless critical reflection to continue our democratic republic. It appears that the only legitimate political structures are those that are chosen by rational individuals who agree through discourse to secure broad decisions subject to their own consent. It is a very talkative community.
Socrates in the Apology
Given the nature of democracy, the standard position sees Socrates as the ideal democratic citizen because on its interpretation he possesses the desired attributes needed for democracy. According to the standard position, primary evidence for his attributes and practice comes from his defense speech in Plato's Apology. (4)
To begin with, the Apology reveals the virtues of Socrates's philosophical vocation. The two central virtues are eternal skepticism and unbridled inquiry. These virtues emerge from Socrates's account of his familiar practice. In his defense, Socrates stated that his practice began with recognition that he lacked possession of wisdom. He stated: "For I am conscious that I am not at all wise, either much or little." (5) He realizes that he does not possess anything like the knowledge claimed by so-called moral experts, such as the sophists, politicians, and poets. On this position's interpretation, Socrates knows absolutely nothing with certainty. Yet, it is this total lack of knowledge which "serves as the basis and goad of Socrates's philosophical activity." (6) He responds to the perplexing claim by the Delphic oracle that no one is wiser than he, by relentlessly questioning the claims to expert knowledge being made all around him. He describes his activity as consistently refuting others' claims to knowledge. Through his relentless questioning, he discovers that the moral experts did not possess the knowledge that they claimed to possess. Whereas initially Socrates was skeptical towards his own possession of knowledge, he grew to become "eternally skeptical of any claim to possessing absolute and eternal truths." (7) His eternal skepticism only enlivened his unbridled inquiry. As a result of his eternal skepticism and unbridled inquiry, he began to question the beliefs, practices, and traditions of the city of Athens. Because the city of Athens believed these things were not the creation of man, but were mandated by the Gods, Socrates cast doubt on the belief that the Gods sanctioned the city's way of life. He questioned whether the beliefs that guided the city's way of life had a natural or social origin. Was the city's way of life grounded in immutable natural laws or was it produced through the discussion and agreement of men? Eventually, according to this position, Socrates revealed the social origin not only of Athens's way of life, but also of all apparently timeless beliefs, practices, and traditions. Convinced of the contingent nature of all beliefs, practices, and traditions, he dedicated himself to the examined life, engaging every day in arguments about virtue and others things, examining both himself and others. His unbridled inquiry intended to provoke eternal skepticism in others so as to prompt them to engage in the same unbridled inquiry. In short, eternal skepticism is an attitude of radical doubt towards all claims to knowledge and unbridled inquiry is the relentless questioning of all those claims.
Socrates's Democratic Virtues
The standard position believes that these virtues, which are the heart of Socrates's philosophical vocation, would function well as democratic virtues. Eternal skepticism is a primary virtue of the democratic citizen because it liberates citizens from strong commitment to their views and creates an opportunity for openness and dialogue with other viewpoints. Yet, this skepticism radiates beyond individual beliefs until the citizen is able to doubt the broad set of beliefs, practices and traditions of the political regime. By preventing conviction towards a single or set of viewpoints, citizens avoid obstructing the needed endless scrutiny of all individual and political viewpoints. Indeed, this skeptical attitude provides the conditions necessary for extensive, ceaseless examination of all political consensus and judgments which is critical to the well-functioning of our democratic experiment.
Beyond a skeptical attitude, the democratic citizen needs the ability to be able to engage in civic participation in the form of ceaseless examination. Socrates's unbridled inquiry is a democratic virtue because it exhibits this form necessary to the maintenance of the democratic republic. As conversation, Socrates's inquiry displays a democratic and inclusive attitude that invites and fosters participation. His inquiry demonstrates logical, critical thinking that elevates the quality of civic participation. At the same time, his inquiry holds people accountable by compelling them to articulate their positions clearly and explain how their actions are in accord with their positions. Socrates's inquiry also provokes aporia which produces a skeptical attitude in the interlocutors and provides them the opportunity to begin to think independently. This position admires Socrates's ability to encourage in citizens a sense of contingency about themselves and their community, for he models the ability to doubt the unqualified goodness of one's own way of life. Perhaps most importantly, by producing a skeptical attitude, Socrates's unbridled inquiry establishes the conditions for civic participation in the form of ceaseless examination which is needed by our democratic republic. On this view, Socrates produces a citizenry capable of self-reflection, self-reform and enacting change in the political realm. He is a gadfly who stings sluggish citizens so as to foster a more reflective and deliberative citizen and democratic life. He exemplifies the attributes for a talking democracy. As he lives the examined life he models common inquiry and civic participation for others to follow. In fact, this position suggests that democratic politics and Socratic philosophy are analogous practices which are mutually supportive. Apparently, then, democracy will stand or fall by the promotion of Socrates's way of life throughout the citizenry.
Does the Standard Position's Depiction of Socrates Ensure Democracy?
Socrates's ability to invite and foster conversation, deepen logical clarity, purge one of false belief and arouse curiosity may be worth cultivating in citizens of democracy. Indeed, Socrates's critical reflection is necessary to prevent thoughtless acceptance of beliefs, practices and traditions which could prove detrimental to the flourishing of democracy. Additionally, it possesses the potential to initiate individual and political reform. The standard position, however, "did not take Plato's [Apology] of Socrates seriously enough because they took it too seriously." (8) That is, they took Socrates's praise too seriously and failed to appreciate the explosive nature of Socrates's questioning. They overlook the tension and endanger the city by placing philosophy at the center of political life. The eternal skepticism and unbridled inquiry that this position suggests are ideal in Socrates may in fact pose potential threats to our democracy and do more to undermine than support it. It never seems to occur to this position that such an attitude and practice might threaten political order and decisiveness which are necessary conditions for preserving democratic commitments, such as freedom.
According to the standard position, Socrates's eternal skepticism forbids him to assent to claims of knowledge. As a result he never achieves final answers and thus ceaselessly questions. Can a community sustain itself on perpetual doubt? Can our democracy sustain itself on perpetual doubt? Any community must foster salutary opinions of the community. These salutary opinions are necessary to create and/or maintain a degree of political order. Though born from many sources, a community will create a unifying set of opinions to produce a necessary consensus. Our own democracy must foster shared commitments to freedom and equality in order to produce and maintain a necessary consensus on these commitments. Socrates's supposed eternal skepticism and ceaseless questioning endangers these commitments because he would forbid assent to any commitment. By questioning any such commitments he weakens the spirit of collective identity that builds attachment between our citizens around democratic commitments. What is more, a community requires a measure of devotion: a person willing to sacrifice part of their natural liberty in favor of protecting or supporting their community. Such required devotion is not born but created through these foundational commitments. The proliferation of eternal skepticism and unbridled inquiry nurtures detachment from the community and creates a maladaptive citizen that threatens the need for devotion and consensus. Indeed, it would appear difficult for democratic commitments to exist at all without a measure of devotion and consensus.
Weakening the Decision-Making Process
An uncritical celebration of Socrates's eternal skepticism and ceaseless questioning also impacts the necessary decision making of our democracy. How are basic decisions to be made in a culture of ceaseless questioning? Our democracy will need to make decisions relative to our internal and external relations that support our democratic commitments. For example, "What should be the purpose of citizenship education?" "Should we go to war?" These decisions are necessary for the continuation of our democracy, yet a culture of ceaseless questioning jeopardizes the decision making process that would work toward an answer, thus threatening the continuation of our democracy. There is no model for acting when the basis for action is always doubted and raised to a question. At some point, there will need to be citizens skilled at creating and maintaining consensus to execute necessary functions for our democracy and the promotion of this version of Socrates seems ill-advised given the dire consequences some of these necessary decisions hold. Assuming that a decision can be made in a culture of questioning, there is nothing to guarantee that the decision will uphold the democratic tradition. There appears a naive hope that strategic choice and common interest will necessarily lead to democratic commitments, such as equality and liberty. Thus, Socrates's celebrated attributes appear imprudent for a true participatory democracy that requires citizens to secure broad decisions through consent.
Endangering the Life of Liberty
The ironic implication of the standard position's portrayal of Socrates, then, is that his attributes could destroy the conditions necessary to have his way of life. Necessary to Socrates's questioning way of life are a degree of political order favorable to freedom and decisions that continually support the commitment to freedom. This position is apparently unaware that these conditions of freedom are not guaranteed. Promoting eternal skepticism and unbridled inquiry endangers the order and decisiveness necessary to protect the commitment to free inquiry. As unbridled inquiry threatens a community, a threatened community could persecute and suppress any inquiry. The conditions of freedom are achieved by political institutions that protect and support inquiry. More importantly, these political institutions are only supported by public opinion that supports inquiry. Public opinion, though, will not be formed to protect inquiry if too many citizens show a lack of regard for the conditions of freedom. Freedom cannot be sustained or pursued in chaos caused by the creation of a mass of unbridled inquirers. It would appear difficult for a robust participatory democracy to thrive when freedom of inquiry is curtailed because it is viewed as threat to political order.
The standard position's portrayal of Socrates's philosophical vocation may not ensure the continuation of democracy. In fact, by promoting unbridled inquiry and eternal skepticism alone in citizens, the standard position creates an irresponsible citizen. It is irresponsible because it razes political order and derails the decision making process which are necessary conditions for freedom. While Socrates's virtues as portrayed by the standard position are necessary, they are hardly sufficient to ensure the continuation of democracy. As a result, the portrayal of Socrates as ideal democratic citizen is too simplistic to function as an ideal democratic citizen. The ideal democratic citizen will need to possess virtues beyond the virtues of talk.
Our Democratic Republic's Need for Liberty and Order
The irresponsible and simplistic notion of the ideal democratic citizen offered by the standard position emerges from an inability to recognize that there is both a need for order and liberty. Despite the criticism above of Socrates's philosophical virtues and the claim that our regime needs a measure of order, freedom and questioning are critical and necessary to preserve our democratic republic. Without a measure of liberty, our regime is unable to judge and revise itself in light of an alternative perspective. Without careful and sober reflection and choice, our regime may succumb to the maladies inherent to our enterprise. For example, we may give power to quickly not to those who are wise, but to the pretenders of wisdom, who unscrupulously exploit our need for wisdom. As a result, we may unwittingly produce another kind of tyranny. In fact, the potential for the consolidation of power and the emergence of tyranny may be greater in our democracy than it was in the city of Athens. The sheer size of our modern, mass democracy limits civic forums and civic participation. Public forums and participation are replaced by electronic media and political advertising that appear to replace thoughtful, deep discussion with sound bites and slogans. Under these conditions the accumulation of order and power is dangerous and needs to be confronted with criticism and questioning so as to prevent the limiting and control of information, debate and discourse. So, a skeptical attitude and ceaseless examination, as displayed by Socrates, guards against mindless, habituated thinking and action that may prove detrimental to our democratic regime.
Without a measure of order, however, our regime is unable to sustain itself or the conditions necessary for liberty to flourish. By failing to understand the need for both order and liberty, the standard position overlooks the need for Socrates's philosophical virtues to be balanced with political virtues which help maintain a measure of order in our regime. In fact, the political virtues which maintain order are necessary so as to maintain the conditions for liberty.
For our regime to endure, our fundamental opinions, such as the belief in human equality and the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, must be authoritative in the lives of our citizens. These opinions must become the central organizing principles of our regime and of our citizens. Political virtues are those habits and dispositions needed to sustain every political regime, even our democratic regime. (9) Every kind of regime needs political virtues because every kind of regime desires to sustain itself into the future. William Galston's identification and description of what he calls "general virtues" offers a good beginning framework for conceiving of the political virtues useful to our regime. (10) For our regime to sustain itself it must be prepared and able to defend itself. The political virtue of moral courage--"the willingness to fight on behalf of one's country"--will be needed to defend against the threat of an external foe. (11) Our laws need to be obeyed because they are the skeletal structure on which our regime's way of life hangs. By obeying the laws, citizens mold their behavior to hold up the regime's core ideals. Thus, the political virtue of law abidingness needs to be fostered in our citizens. Without an active belief in our ideals, the willingness to abide by the laws and defend those ideals is probably lost. In that case, "[L]oyalty--the developed capacity to understand, to accept, and to act on the core principles of one's society--is thus a fundamental virtue." (12)
Can a people both be free and ordered? The Founders were deeply concerned with the liberties afforded to citizens because earlier direct democracies had all failed. Earlier democracies which had afforded the citizens with self-government all proved too factious, too passionate, too unstable to sustain themselves. The desires of the people overran the prudence of the people. The uncontrolled proliferation of liberty, which the standard position appears to do, could destroy the possibility of achieving self-government. While remedies were sought in the machinery of government and the populating of large land areas, for example, the problems associated with insuring the blessings of liberty could only be solved by self-control of citizens. To insure the blessings of liberty, citizens will need to restrain their freedom to a degree to preserve their freedom. Good order and the preservation and perpetuation of our democratic republic depend upon citizens restraining their liberty. Self-restraint of passions, speech and actions is needed to ensure a degree of political stability. If passions, speech or actions are left completely unchecked, then they may attack and weaken the civic bonds that sustain the regime. If weakened, the regime is more likely to falter. There must be a kind of regulation against an internal threat to the regime and the political virtue of self-restraint may act as that regulator.
Although not explicit in the standard position, proponents could argue that Socrates's defense of his philosophical vocation is an instance of the political virtue of courage. Let's assume this is true. The virtue of self-restraint, however, remains underappreciated by the standard position. Yet, it is a vital virtue for our democratic republic where we provide an unprecedented accent on personal liberty that could destroy the conditions for liberty. Following the standard position's version of the ideal democratic citizen could lead to lawlessness in spirit which could encourage lawlessness in practice and, eventually, a total lack of restraint. Our democratic citizens need to learn the virtue of self-restraint so as not to destroy the conditions that protect their right to freedom.
The fundamental tension between order and liberty is a central theme of schooling in the United States, but is apparently ignored by the standard position. Early leaders of the United States were deeply anxious about conserving and consolidating the gains of the revolution. How will the proper synthesis of ordered liberty be achieved? Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Rush and Noah Webster sought to use schools to achieve a proper synthesis in the citizens. (13) They articulated judgments that reflected the tension between liberty and order when they asked teachers to train students to be both free-thinking and patriotic. "From this clash of necessary consensus and of freedom of dissent stemmed the paradoxical nature" of Republican education. (14) This paradox manifested itself throughout the history of Republican education. "A compelling feature of the Reconstruction era was the 'signal clarity with which contests over access and control and ideals of liberty and order were played out in the educational arena.'" (15) What lay at the center of the debate between balancing the rights of the states and the needs of the nation was a tension over the "nature of civic life and citizenship." (16) George Counts "forcefully reminded [Progressive era] educators that teachers committed to the protection and expansion of democratic schooling faced the paradoxical task of simultaneously promoting the critical thinking of individual students and indoctrinating shared democratic commitments." (17)
We might wonder, however, whether the standard position's depiction of Socrates and our democracy better characterizes academic life than political life. "Unlike politics--where decisions must be reached and goals pursued, where results count for a great deal--a university education provides the true image of an endless conversation....Captivating as this image is, ... it cannot, of course, be adequate as a depiction of the rest of life--in which children must be raised, enemies confronted...." (18) Political life concerns itself with necessary arrangements to ensure cooperative living. The standard position promotes virtues that support endless conversation, but not necessarily the arrangements to ensure cooperative living.
Based on a broader conception of political virtues needed for our democratic republic, a more complex ideal democratic citizen emerges than that offered by the standard position. Rather than possessing virtues of endless conversation alone, an ideal democratic citizen will also need to possess moral courage, law-abidingness, loyalty and self-restraint among others. (19) The combination of these virtues will be necessary to ensure that a government survives based on the reflection and choice of its citizens. Civic education programs would then need to be guided by an ideal that incorporated these virtues to ensure the preservation and perpetuation of our democratic republic.
The standard position, then, ignores at our peril the fundamental tension between order and liberty, the need for self-restraint, and so also the fact that an established measure of political stability is essential in securing our democratic regime. To deny that the survival of our democratic regime depends on a commitment by the American people to the rule of law and to principles that are embodied in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution is arguably irresponsible. Awareness of the fundamental tension between order and liberty is essential, then, because it deepens our understanding of the complexity of an ideal democratic citizen and educating citizens for a political regime, especially for our democratic republic. Democratic citizens must honor the right to liberty and honor the need for political conditions that allow liberty to flourish.
Can Socrates be useful as an ideal democratic citizen who honors both liberty and order? Although the standard position's depiction of Socrates as unaware of the fundamental tension between order and liberty and as practicing the virtues of endless conversation to the detriment of the city is deeply problematic, Socrates can be used as an ideal democratic citizen. He is a useful ideal because he not only honors liberty through his defense of the examined life, but he also honors order through his practice of self-restraint. His self-restraint honors the need for preserving a measure of political order as well as for liberty, which for its flourishing depends upon the sustenance (and tolerance) that comes only in the presence of some degree of order. It is Socrates's civic reverence expressed through his self-restraint that is underappreciated by the standard position. Because the standard position bases its portrayal of Socrates on the early Platonic dialogues, but especially the Apology, we will analyze the character Socrates in the Apology as well as the Crito to demonstrate his virtue of self-restraint.
Refusal to be Political
Granted Socrates honors the examined life, but he also honors the city by his refusal to be political. First of all, recall where Socrates practices his philosophical vocation. Throughout Plato's dialogues, for example, Socrates engages citizens in the gymnasiums, marketplace, and households and not in the Assembly. In the Apology he asks the jury not to make a disturbance if he speaks in his usual manner, for "now is the first time I have come before a law court [as I am a] foreigner to the manner of speech here" (17c-d). In addition, we know that Socrates rarely if ever participated in conventional political pursuits.
Why did Socrates refuse to be political? Socrates himself offers two reasons. First, his daimon restrains him. Second, in the Apology he claims that "if I had long ago attempted to be politically active, I would long ago have perished and I would have benefited neither you nor myself" (31d-e). Socrates rightly recognizes that no one can oppose the multitude and survive. He offers two personal accounts to demonstrate the danger of being political. Under democratic rule the orators were ready to indict and arrest him for opposing the trial of the Admirals who failed to rescue their men after a naval battle; under oligarchic rule he may have been killed for refusing to arrest Leon of Salamis. Rather than fold under the pressure of the multitude, Socrates stood firm in his adherence to justice despite its possible ramifications.
Dana Villa, an author of the standard position, offers a third reason for Socrates's refusing to be political. According to Villa, Socrates sought to "distance thinking and moral reflection from the all too obvious constraints of political action and judgment." (20) The point of this distancing for Villa is "to open the possibility of philosophical citizenship." (21) But, of course, the possibility of philosophical citizenship, which Socrates has enjoyed for nearly seventy years, is possible if Athenian public opinion tolerates this kind of citizenship. While his distancing may be an effort to preserve the purity of thinking, might it also be because he so reveres the city that he restrains himself from entering the center of political life and destroying it. J. Peter Euben, another author of the standard position, offers a promising account of Socrates's refusal to be political, but he does not develop its significance to Socrates the citizen. Euben states,
For [Socrates] knew well enough that too much philosophy makes bad politics (just as the absence of philosophy does). If I am right, then Socrates refuses to speak in the Assembly because 'success' there might have killed Athens. His choice of where and how to practice philosophy is as much to save the city from philosophy and philosophy from Athens, even though philosophy is potentially the city's savior. (22)
On this interpretation, Socrates chooses not to be political and so practices self-restraint out of a reverence for the city. If he pursued too vigorously the extension of philosophy into political life, he could threaten the needed public support for the philosophical life. Rather, his defense speech intends to create a level of tolerance for the philosophical life. Thus, because Socrates does not deny the tension between liberty and order but appreciates it with a measure of self-control he ultimately protects philosophy! It is by placing philosophy and politics side-by-side rather than placing philosophy in the center that Socrates can be potentially useful to the city.
Acceptance of Punishment
Socrates's acceptance of punishment and execution is another instance of self-restraint. The verdict to condemn Socrates was not unexpected by him. Rather than throw himself upon the court's mercy, offering shameless speeches, wailing and lamenting as is the custom, he remains steadfast to his defense. He refrains from pleading for his life because that would contradict his commitment to living a just life rather than simply living. Moreover, by restraining himself in what may be a moment of injustice, he reaffirms the order in the city, but also educates the jurors and his admirers to the character of the philosopher. His self-control establishes a positive model of the philosopher in the city. His self-restraint begins to establish the conditions for the acceptance of the philosopher in the future.
Refusal to Flee
Once Socrates is condemned, he is sent to prison to await his execution. In prison, Crito, Socrates's friend, visits Socrates and alerts him to an opportunity to flee. Socrates, however, refuses to flee. How do we account for his refusal to flee?
Socrates's own account focuses on two broad points. First, Socrates obtains Crito's agreement that just because the many might believe it is right to flee does not make it right to flee. In fact, they should not concern themselves with the many but with truth itself. Second, impersonating the laws of Athens, Socrates apparently shows that the laws have begotten, nourished, and educated him and thus deserve obedience. In addition, injustice (or disobedience to the laws) is to be avoided because it would "not only be wrong, but as an act of disobedience to lawfully constituted procedures, destructive of the states as such." (23) Later on in the speech, the Laws of Athens proclaim that Socrates has demonstrated that he is "satisfied" with the state, has "never left the city" and has "definitely chosen [the city], and undertaken to observe [the city] in all [of Socrates's] activities as a citizen." (24) A little further they add,
So are you not transgressing your contracts and agreements with us, although you did not agree to them under necessity and were not deceived? Nor were you compelled to take counsel in a short time, but during seventy years in which you could have gone away if we were not satisfactory or if the agreements did not appear to be just to you. But you chose instead neither Lacedaemon nor Crete--and you yourself on occasion that they have good laws--nor any other of the Greek cities or the barbarian ones. Rather, you took fewer journeys away from the city than the lame and blind and other cripples, so exceedingly did it and we laws satisfy you more than the other Athenians, clearly. (25)
As Dana Villa rightly observes, what this passage reveals is an "insight into the nature of Socrates's attachment to Athens. Socrates prefers Athens not because he was born there (with the Laws as his parents) but because of Athens' democratic constitution and the freedom it made possible." (26) Socrates refuses to flee out of civic reverence. He refuses to flee out of a deep appreciation for the distinctive, democratic constitution of Athens. Only Athens provided a measure of freedom and tolerance that allowed him to pursue his life of critical reflection. Socrates appreciates this fact and intends to uphold these conditions by not fleeing. He simply could not pursue his philosophical life elsewhere. It is important to note that his civic reverence is expressed through self-restraint. Socrates's refusal to flee is an act of self-control. He refrains from actions so as to preserve conditions that allow for freedom and tolerance of critical reflection. At this point, Socrates's act of self-restraint is not a single isolated incident, but the culminating act in a pattern of self-restraint. Self-restraint is part of the character of Socrates.
By reconsidering Socrates, we have discovered a more robust conception of Socratic citizenship. James A. Colaiaco captures this conception through his examination of Jacques-Louis David's painting of The Death of Socrates, first exhibited in Paris in 1787 and now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. (27) The scene depicted is from the last days of Socrates, as portrayed in the Phaedo. His last gesture is a paradoxical expression of his devotion to both liberty and order. One hand points upward to the heavens as if to signify his devotion to truth and philosophical discussion. This is the standard portrayal of Socrates, living and dying for philosophy. What is too often unappreciated is the action of his other hand. Surrounded by friends, Socrates is sitting up in bed reaching with the other hand for the cup of poison hemlock that will end his life. This expresses his devotion of the city and the conditions that have allowed him to live a most pleasurable life. "By his death, Socrates simultaneously fulfilled the two principles that served as the bases of his life. In refusing to abandon his philosophic mission, he remained faithful to God and his conscience; in submitting to the verdict of the court, he remained faithful to Athens and the principle of the rule of law." (28) On this portrayal, Socrates is more than a ceaselessly questioning gadfly, as the standard position suggests. Rather, Socrates is a complex figure because of his recognition of and dedication to the need for liberty and order. It is this kind of figure, one who reconciles radical reflection and civic reverence, that is most needed for our democratic republic.
In contrast to the standard position's depiction, Socrates recognized the tension between philosophy and the city and was careful not to destroy the city and the conditions for philosophy. Because he anticipated the danger that philosophy posed to itself, he was never as irresponsible as the standard position itself is by promoting its version of Socrates. Socrates realized that both order and liberty are vital elements to the health of a regime. Hence, he acted with moderation to ensure a measure of devotion to the conditions that support liberty. Socrates's responsible citizenship is a useful educational ideal for a regime like ours that provides unprecedented liberties that could destroy the possibility of achieving self-government.
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Ted Mitchell, "Turning Points: Reconstruction and the Growth of National Influence in Education," in Reconstructing the Common Good in Education: Coping with Intractable American Dilemmas, eds. Larry Cuban and Dorothy Shipps (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000), 32-50.
Martha Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997).
Harry Neumann, "Plato's Defense of Socrates: An Interpretation of Ancient and Modern Sophistry," Liberal Education, 56, 3 (1970): 458-75.
Daniel Perlstein, "There Is No Escape ... from the Ogre of Indoctrination": George Counts and the Civic Dilemmas of Democratic Educators," in Reconstructing the Common Good in Education: Coping with Intractable American Dilemmas, eds. Larry Cuban and Dorothy Shipps (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000), 51-68.
Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies: The Spell of Plato (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1966).
C. D. C. Reeve, Socrates in the Apology (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1989).
Rob Reich, "Confusion about the Socratic Method: Socratic Paradoxes and Contemporary Invocations of Socrates," in Philosophy of Education 1998, ed. Steven Tozer (Urbana, IL: Philosophy of Education Society, 1999), 68-78.
Richard Rorty, "Education without Dogma," Dissent (Spring 1989), 198-204.
Richard Rorty, "That Old-Time Philosophy, The New Republic (April 4, 1988): 28-33.
Clinton Rossiter, ed., The Federalist Papers, Number 1, (New York: Penguin Books, 1961).
Mark Schudson, The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life (New York: Free Press, 1998).
R.M. Smith, Civic Ideals: Conflicting Visions of Citizenship in U.S. History (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997).
I. F. Stone, The Trial of Socrates (New York: Anchor Books, 1989).
David Tyack, "Forming the National Character: Paradox in the Educational Thought of the Revolutionary Generation," Harvard Educational Review 36, no. 1 (Winter 1966): 29-41.
Dana Villa, Socratic Citizenship (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001).
Gregory Vlastos, "The Historical Socrates and Athenian Democracy," Political Theory, 11, no. 4 (1983): 495-516.
Thomas West, Plato's Apology of Socrates: An Interpretation and a New Translation (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1979).
Thomas West, Vindicating the Founders: Race, Sex, Class and Justice in the Origins of America (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1997).
Thomas West and Grace Starry West, eds., Four Texts on Socrates: Plato and Aristophanes (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998).
Ellen Meiskins Wood, "Socrates and Democracy: A Reply to Gregory Vlastos," Political Theory, 14, no. 1 (1986): 55-82.
Timothy L. Simpson
Morehead State University
(1) Of course, an anarchist would deny this premise. An anarchist denies that it is necessary (or perhaps just) to constrain the beliefs and actions of citizens. Henry David Thoreau may be a good American example of this position.
(2) By the "standard position" I mean those who believe that Socrates as a citizen is a good ideal for the democratic citizen. Authors holding the standard position are: Rob Reich, "Confusion about the Socratic Method: Socratic Paradoxes and Contemporary Invocations of Socrates," in Philosophy of Education 1998, ed. Steven Tozer (Urbana, IL: Philosophy of Education Society, 1999), 68-78; J. Peter Euben, Corrupting Youth: Political Education, Democratic Culture, and Political Theory (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997); Martha Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997); Richard Rorty, "Education Without Dogma," Dissent (Spring 1989), 198-204; Rorty, "That Old-Time Philosophy, The New Republic (April 4, 1988): 28-33; Gregory Vlastos, "The Historical Socrates and Athenian Democracy," Political Theory, 11, no. 4 (1983): 495-516; Adolf G. Gundersen, The Socratic Citizen: A Theory of Deliberative Democracy (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2000); Richard Kraut, "Socrates and Democracy," in Popper and the Human Sciences, eds., G. Currie and A. Musgrave (Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1985); Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies: The Spell of Plato (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1966). Dana Villa could also be included in the standard position. However, he distinctly differentiates himself from those who claim Socrates is a model for participatory democracy. Dana Villa, Socratic Citizenship (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001); The following are some authors who do not believe Socrates is supportive of democracy: Willmoore Kendall, Willmoore Kendall Contra Mundum (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1971); M. I. Finley, Aspects of Antiquity (New York: Viking Press, 1968); Ellen Meiskins Wood, "Socrates and Democracy: A Reply to Gregory Vlastos," Political Theory, 14, no. 1 (1986): 55-82; I. F. Stone, The Trial of Socrates (New York: Anchor Books, 1989).
(3) This position appears to accept the idea that democracy is not based on non-arbitrary, timeless principles. Rather, all principles are experimental, thus, democracy is an experiment based on considered political judgments. This position is typically articulated through a comparison of the "historical Socrates" and the "Platonic Socrates." The Platonic Socrates is committed to the view that we can access timeless Truths, whereas the Historical Socrates rejects this view. These authors then support the Historical Socrates because it better corresponds with the nature of democracy. For both Socrates and Democracy, principles are in eternal flux. A good example of this position is from the following quote by Richard Rorty, "[Socrates's life] was an experimental life--the sort of life that is encouraged by, and in turn encourages, the American democratic experiment," from "That Old-Time Philosophy," 31.
(4) This is the dominant interpretation of Plato's Apology. Some examples of this interpretation are: John Burnet, Plato's Euthyphro, Apology of Socrates and Crito (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1924); Reginald Hackforth, The Composition of Plato's Apology (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1933); more recently, Thomas C. Brickhouse and Nicholas D. Smith, Socrates on Trial (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989); C. D. C. Reeve, Socrates in the Apology (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1989). For some notable exceptions to this trend: Eva Brann, "The Offense of Socrates," Interpretation, 7 (1978): 1-21; George Anastaplo, Human Being and Citizen: Essays on Virtue, Freedom and the Common Good (Chicago: The Swallow Press, Inc., 1975); Harry Neumann, "Plato's Defense of Socrates: An Interpretation of Ancient and Modern Sophistry," Liberal Education, 56, 3 (1970): 458-75; Thomas West, Plato's Apology of Socrates: An Interpretation and a new Translation (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1979); Gerald Mara, Socrates' Discursive Democracy: Logos and Ergon in Platonic Political Philosophy (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1997); M. F. Burnyeat, "The Impiety of Socrates," Ancient Philosophy 17, no. 1 (1997): 1-12.
(5) Plato's Apology, 21b. Four Texts on Socrates: Plato and Aristophanes, translators Thomas G. West and Grace Starry West, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998).
(6) Villa, Socratic Citizenship, 18.
(7) Reich, "Confusion about the Socratic Method," 75.
(8) Neumann, "Plato's Defense of Socrates," 474.
(9) For a broad discussion of political virtues see: J. Budziszewski, "Religion and Civic Virtue," NOMOS 34 (1992): 49-68; Amy Gutmann, "Democracy and Democratic Education," Studies in Philosophy of Education 12, no. 1 (1993): 1-9; Robert Audi, "A Liberal Theory of Civic Virtue," Social Philosophy and Policy 15, no. 1 (Winter 1998): 149-70; Russell Bentley and David Owen, "Ethical Loyalties, Civic Virtue and the Circumstances of Politics," Philosophical Explorations 4, no. 3 (2001): 223-39; Will Kymlicka and Wayne Norman, "Return of the Citizen: A Survey of Recent Work on Citizenship Theory," Ethics 104 (January 1994): 352-81; Herlinda Pauer Studer, "Liberalism, Perfectionism, and Civic Virtue," Philosophical Explorations 4, no. 3 (2001): 174-92; Mark Kingwell, "Defending Political Virtue," The Philosophical Forum 27, no. 3 (Spring 1996): 244-68; Victoria M. Costa, "Political Liberalism and the Complexity of Civic Virtue," The Southern Journal of Philosophy 42, no. 2 (Summer 2004): 149-70.
(10) William Galston, Liberal Purposes: Goods, Virtues, and Diversity in the Liberal State (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 221-2.
(11) Ibid., 221.
(13) See David Tyack's, "Forming the National Character: Paradox in the Educational Thought of the Revolutionary Generation," Harvard Educational Review 36, no. 1 (Winter 1966): 29-41. See the following for discussions of citizenship: C.F. Kaestle, "Towards a political economy of citizenship: Historical perspectives on the purposes of the common schools," in Rediscovering the democratic purposes of education, eds. L. McDonnell, P.M. Timpane, and R. Benjamin (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 2000); R.M. Smith, Civic Ideals: Conflicting visions of citizenship in U.S. history (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997); M. Schudson, The good citizen: A history of American civic life (New York: Free Press, 1998).
(14) Tyack, "Forming the National Character," 41.
(15) Ted Mitchell, "Turning Points: Reconstruction and the Growth of National Influence in Education," in Reconstructing the Common Good in Education: Coping with Intractable American Dilemmas, eds. Larry Cuban and Dorothy Shipps (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000), 33.
(17) Daniel Perlstein, "There Is No Escape ... from the Ogre of Indoctrination": George Counts and the Civic Dilemmas of Democratic Educators," in Reconstructing the Common Good in Education, 51.
(18) Gilbert Meilaender, "Talking Democracy," First Things 142 (April 2004): 25-31. Accessed at http://www.firstthings.com/ftissues/ft0404/articles/meilaender. html
(19) This is probably only a partial list of virtues needed by our citizenry, but they appear critical to the preserving of our regime of liberty.
(20) Villa, Socratic Citizenship, 30.
(22) Euben, Corrupting Youth, 217.
(23) Villa, Socratic Citizenship, 42. See Crito, 51a-c. The Crito's apparent call for strict obedience creates a paradox with the Apology. Whereas the Apology appears to defend disobedience, the Crito appears to defend strict obedience. This paradox is explored by the following authors: Villa, Socratic Citizenship, 41-56; J. Peter Euben, "Philosophy and Politics in Plato's Crito," Political Theory 6 (May 1978): 149-172; Thomas Brickhouse and Nicolas D. Smith, Socrates on Trial (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989), 137-153; Richard Kraut, Socrates and the State (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), 13-22; West and West, Four Texts on Socrates, 24-28.
(24) Crito, 52b-c.
(25) Crito, 52e-53a.
(26) Villa, Socratic Citizenship, 49. The italics are Villa's. This passage reveals an important insight into the character of Socrates, but, in my estimation, Villa does not appreciate this side of Socrates's character. Rather, Villa still emphasizes Socrates work as a gadfly, ceaselessly questioning all practices and traditions of political life. His insight suggests a more robust notion of the Socratic citizen that actually moves beyond the gadfly.
(27) James A. Colaiaco, Socrates against Athens: Philosophy on Trial (New York: Routledge, 2001).
(28) Ibid., 225. For a similar expression of Socrates's dual allegiance see: West, Plato's Apology of Socrates, 231-2 and Euben, The Tragedy of Political Theory: The Road Not Taken (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990), 233. In reference to Euben, he makes the insight that Socrates holds an allegiance to Athens, he even characterizes him as a critical patriot, but still offers him as a relentless skeptic without a significant appreciation of his self-restraint.
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|Author:||Simpson, Timothy L.|
|Publication:||Journal of Thought|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2006|
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