The Socratic Citizen

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  • Topic: Socrates, Plato, Trial of Socrates
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Assignment I: Is Socrates a good citizen? Discuss with reference to the Apology and the Crito. The Socratic Citizen
Plato’s Socrates is a character plagued and prized with contradictions. He professed to care for nothing so much as virtue and human excellence but was incriminated by the greatest and most open democracy in ancient history. He was wrongfully convicted, yet unwilling to avoid his unjust execution. He is at once the most Athenian, citizenly, patriotic, and other-regarding of philosophers—and yet the most critical and self-regarding of Athenians. In exploring that contradiction, between “Socrates the loyal Athenian citizen” and “Socrates the philosophical critic of Athenian society,” Aristotle’s Politics comes to mind: “the good citizen need not of necessity possess the virtue which makes a good man.” Socrates’ duality, as illustrated by the Apology and Crito, qualifies him as both a good man and a good citizen.

The Apology presents Socrates as a highly patriotic citizen who attempted to improve his fellows through beneficial provocation and criticism of popular ideas. Socrates avoided addressing the Assembly and engaging in a ‘public life’, but he carried out his critical obligations in public places as well as in private houses. The Apology opens with Socrates justifying himself and his way of life before a jury of his Athenian peers. It shows him speaking in a public forum, defending the utility of philosophy for political life. Socrates’ speech is a rhetorical masterpiece; but by its end he has not aligned himself with the democratic norms embraced by his fellow citizens. It is worthwhile to note that Socrates never defends himself by reference to the doctrine of unlimited free speech. Rather, he maintains that the examined life is alone worth living. His is a highly individual quest for self perfection and not a doctrine about the value of freedom of speech in general.

Socrates’ capacity to do good for his fellows is implied by his clever ‘gadfly metaphor’. He associates his patronage to the polis to the good done by a gadfly to “a large and well bred horse, a horse grown sluggish because of its size and in need of being roused… I rouse you. I persuade you. I upbraid you. I never stop lighting on each one of you, everywhere, all day long.” (30e-31a). He believes that his critical sting really can awaken at least some Athenians by inflicting therapeutic pain upon them. The trial speech, itself, represents a sincere attempt to employ public rhetoric for the purposes of mass education and is in line with his self-description of a good citizen and public benefactor. Socrates proves that his own political convictions and irritating, idiosyncratic everyday practice of examining his fellow Athenians (and finding them painfully wanting in wisdom), though drastically at odds with popular views, followed necessarily from his convictions. Socrates saw his own fierce, biting criticism of the status quo, both before and during the trial, as “doing good”. Being a social critic was his duty to his god, himself, and his polis. This attests that Socrates was both a philosophical social critic and a good citizen. Socrates repeatedly maintains that the path he has taken is not of his own choosing but the result of a divine command. He says, “…the truth is, O men of Athens, that God only is wise; and by his answer he intends to show that the wisdom of men is worth little or nothing; he is not speaking of Socrates, he is only using my name by way of illustration, as if he said, He, O men, is the wisest, who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing.” He is under some kind of divine calling and it is his devotion to this divine command that has led him to neglect his worldly affairs. He reminds us, at various points, of his extreme poverty, his neglect of his family and his obligations to his wife and children. He even rejects a ‘potential’ pardon that may have set him free upon the condition that he...
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