Socratic Reflections on Election Day

This column appears on the second Tuesday of November of the fourth year. On this sober day, this country freely (rigged or not!) chooses its fate. “Fate” and ”choice” for once go hand in hand. That we not talk about the candidates’ merits seems fitting. Things cannot turn out well. Our souls have already accepted too much evil for it to be otherwise. Elections are the “democratic” way of killing a tyrant without bloodshed. They can also choose a tyrant without overt revolution. We have already done this twice with Mr. Obama. So we can relax, in a way. Nothing is new.

The trial and death of Socrates (399 B.C.) inaugurate our civic tradition. We examine our souls in their light. Socrates clarifies the relation between truth and the city, between those who are “personally” opposed – but allow evil to happen – and those who die, politically or literally, rather than deny the truth that is theirs to affirm whatever the regime.

Socrates was accused of confusing the citizens by his probing search for truth. His accusers claimed that he did not believe in the gods of the city. He affirmed that spiritual things existed. He was charged with corrupting the youth. He thought that the youth were already corrupted by the sophists hired to teach them whatever they wanted to hear. These sophists are often called the first paid university professors.

Socrates explained that he followed the goddess at Delphi, who told his friend that Socrates was the wisest man in Greece. He doubted it. So he went around the city to find someone with better answers. He found that the ones who were thought wise were not really so. Leisured young men listened to him and imitated him. This angered their fathers, the rulers of the city. They accused him of corrupting their sons. They determined to kill him.

Socrates defended himself before a court of 501 citizen-judges. He explained that he was really the city’s benefactor. He prevented it from going to sleep by neglecting the important things, like what things are true and what things are not. When threatened with death, he replied that death was not the worst disorder. Doing evil was worse. We do not know whether death is an evil or a release to a life in which we are judged, where we live with those who did not renounce the truth, even when they were killed for holding it.

Socrates Drinking the Hemlock by Antonio Zucchi, 1767 [Nostell Priory, West Yorkshire]
Socrates Drinking the Hemlock by Antonio Zucchi, 1767 [Nostell Priory, West Yorkshire]

The court condemned Socrates to death. He was to give a counterproposal. He thought that he deserved free room and board at the city’s expense. All he did with his life was to go about and ask the citizens to examine their lives. Were they living as a human being ought to live? If they were not, their lives were not really worth living. The city was embarrassed to kill their most famous citizen. Why could he not just pay a fine or go into exile or stop philosophizing and annoying everyone?

To accept any of these escapes, Socrates thought, would implicitly be an admission of guilt. It would be unjust for him to accept them. Socrates was hard on those who brought about his condemnation. He told them bluntly that for the rest of history, those who knew of his trial would say that they were the people who unjustly killed the best man. Political choices can taint our souls, forever. Plato wrote the Republic to prove this truth. No escape from evil is found in this world or the next for those who cause the great crimes in politics.

Socrates is content with the verdict of death. He knows that it is not the greatest evil. No evil can harm a good man. Modern politics, less confident about judgment and afterlife, believes it has corrected Socrates about the life of the city. It maintains that we can live a good life by being a politician, especially if we mitigate or eliminate the distinction between good and evil.

Socrates was not so sure. “Do not be angry at me for speaking the truth,” he told the jury. “No man will survive who genuinely opposes you or any other crowd and prevents the occurrence of many unjust and illegal happenings in the city. A man who really fights for justice must lead a private not a public life if he is to survive for even a short time.” (31e-32a) Socrates proved that not even the private life was safe in a polity that placed conformity to the laws of the city before the standard of truth.

This day is, as I said, sobering. With it, Socrates’ distinction between public and private mostly disappears. Socrates will not be condemned for impiety to the gods or corrupting the youth, but for not agreeing with and obeying the laws of the state, as they are rapidly being formulated for what will inevitably be called our “good.”

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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