The origins of political philosophy begins with a man named Socrates of Athens. He was a man like no other in his time, according to the many accounts we have about him. In Socrates’s time there was no field of inquiry know as philosophy, as we have today. The intellectuals of his time operated within the accepted traditions derived from the Homeric Myths. Socrates was the first man to question the social and moral underpinnings of these traditions. He never claimed to have all the answers, rather he admitted that he didn’t know the correct answer to most things, but he did know that the way things were being done in Athens was not the right way, because Athens had ended up in a place of economic, social, and moral crisis during this time. In his conversations with his fellow Athenians, his main emphasis was on self-reflection and examination. He urged people to examine why they believed what they believed and whether those beliefs benefitted the individual and the city. As we would expect in any situation where the established authority is questioned by a rebel, Socrates was met with intense retribution for his inquiries.
The process of learning essential truths through reason and applying them to one’s life came to be called Philosophy. In order for communities to continue surviving they must identify, maintain, and transfer these essential truths from one generation to the next. According to Socrates, objective truths exist, and because humans are rational creatures with the ability to deploy reason and logic, we have the potential to learn something about these truths. Once some of these truths had been learned, they can help human beings live well as individuals in society. The end goal of philosophy, at an individual level, is self-governance, which is not letting oneself be governed by fleeting pleasures or inferior ideas like materialism or fame. At a societal level, philosophical inquiries are intended to help people live more prosperously with one another and make better decision about how to run their communities.
Socrates wondered around Athens talking to people about philosophy; he engaged politicians, poets, artists, craftsmen and other men of power and position in philosophical conversations. He questioned the beliefs held by the Athens intelligentsia about different subjects, and whether their beliefs were based on good reasoning or if it was just based on blind allegiance to traditions passed down through the ages, and by extension Socrates was questioning those underlying traditions, namely the Homeric Myths. Socrates argues that if the foundational beliefs of this society are flawed, then following them would lead Athens to ruin. Which, given the economic, social, and military crisis Athens was in at this time, was a fairly convincing argument. Socrates managed to gather a loyal base of wealthy young men who were eager to learn from him and his fame spread throughout Athens.
Many people were dismayed by Socrates’s intellectual exploits and decided to take action to discredit him. One of these individuals was a playwright named Aristophanes, a contemporary of Socrates. He wrote a play called “The Clouds”, which portrayed a caricature of Socrates in an attempt to discredit the credibility of Socrates and to discredit the new intellectual pursuit of philosophy. In his play, Aristophanes portrays Socrates as a man who is against the natural order of things. For instance, in the beginning of the play when Strepsiades comes to the Thinkery to learn the unjust speech from Socrates to get out of debt, he sees the other philosophy students in the courtyard and reacts like, ”Hercules! Where do these beasts come from? (They seem) like the Laconian captives from Pylos” (Clouds, 122-123). Strepsiades is commenting on the dirty, emaciated, prisoners of war like appearance of the philosophy students. Aristophanes characterizes Socrates’s students in this way to show the audience that philosophical inquiry harms us physically and deviates us from our natural state. In the Homeric conception of nature, Athenian males were supposed to be strong, vibrant, and virile, much like how Zeus and the other gods were portrayed.
Another instance where Aristophanes portrays Socrates as being against nature is when Socrates first makes an appearance in front of Strepsiades floating on a cloud. At which point Strepsiades asks, “First, I beseech you, tell me what you’re doing. Socrates: I tread on air and contemplate the sun. Strepsiades: Then you look down on the gods from a perch and not from the earth?” (Clouds, 124). This portrayal of Socrates is a major violation of Homeric Tradition. In the natural order of things, Gods and birds are the only creatures to inhabit the heavens, mortals are bound to the earth. Once again Aristophanes makes it seem as if Socrates considers himself above or equal to the gods, and unbound by the sacred traditions of the city that all other Athenians live by. The main goal of The Clouds is to convey to the audience a feeling of otherness to Socrates and his ideas. Aristophanes uses the imagery he does to show that Socrates is trying to change the Athenian conception of nature, as it relates to the place of the gods, the place of humans, and how humans are supposed to live and act. None of it accurately represents what Socrates actually believes about these important subjects; it is a wild exaggeration, in order to scare people away from philosophy.
The rebuttal to these exaggerations by Aristophanes is provided by Plato in Euthyphro and The Apology. In the Platonic Dialogues, Plato provides an accurate account of Socrates’s true beliefs and motivations. On the issue of nature, Socrates has a vastly different idea of how human being are supposed to think and live. Socrates believes that there are objective truths that are independent of human beings, but through reason and logical thinking, we can acquire these truths to better our lives and our fellow citizens. Socrates believes that blindly following the traditions passed down through the ages is not a wise way to live life, namely the traditions based on the Homeric Myths. However, Socrates never claims that the gods do not exist or that all the laws and traditions of Athens are meaningless, which is how Aristophanes portrays him in The Clouds. He simply encourages people to examine their own beliefs and consider whether they make sense and if the actions based on these beliefs will benefit the actor and the people around him. Socrates simply has a different interpretation of what human nature is, compared to the other Athenians. Socrates’s idea of human nature is that humans are capable of reason, humans are able communicate with one another about important issues, and that humans can come up with reasonable ways to live well as a city/community. So, in Socrates’s mind he is following nature. His inquiries are a way to cultivate the natural human instinct called reason.
Nowhere is this pursuit clearer than when he engages with Euthyphro about his decision to prosecute his father. Socrates engages the young man in a long conversation in an attempt to show him that prosecuting one’s father might not be the best course of action. Euthyphro claims that he is taking this action in order to be a pious person. So, Socrates asks questions in a logical methodical manner about what piety is to show Euthyphro that not even Euthyphro has a clear idea of what piety is. Euthyphro answers Socrates’s questions using his reasoning skills but eventually gets tired of Socrates’s persistence and runs away. But, this conversation, among many others, shows that even the most naïve and inexperienced people can deploy reason if they are engaged in a stimulating conversation, proving Socrates’s belief that reason is a natural human faculty.
The two main accusations leveled at Socrates by his accusers are that he corrupts the youth of the city and that he invents new Gods or denies the existence of the Greek Pantheon. These two accusation are made by both Aristophanes in The Clouds and by Meletus in the Trial of Socrates. Socrates defended himself against both set of accusers during his trial. First in regards to denying the gods, Socrates recalls a story told by his friend and respected Athenian Chaerephon. Chaerephon consulted the Oracle at Delphi, priestess of the God Apollo, and he asked, “Whether there was anyone wiser than I (Socrates). The Pythia replied that no one was wiser” (Apology, 69). Socrates explained to the jury that he did not think himself to be the wisest man alive, but he did not believe the gods would lie to Chaerephon, so he set out to solve this paradox. He explains how he went to all the proclaimed “wise men” (politicians, poets, artists, craftsmen etc.) of Athens to solve this riddle of the Gods, and how he spent twenty years of his life doing the work of the gods. Socrates presents this story to show that he does not create new gods as Aristophanes claims and he certainly is not an atheist as Meletus has claimed. For if Socrates were an atheist or a believer in other “daimonia”, he would have disregarded the prophecy of Apollo. Because, a nonbeliever would not give credence to the words of the Olympian Gods.
To refute the second charge of corrupting the youth by teaching them of false gods and teaching them the unjust speech, he addressed the jury directly and says, “Again, I offer the many of you as witnesses, tell each other, then, if any of you ever heard me conversing about such things, either much or little, and from this you will recognize that the same holds for the other things that the many say about me” (Apology, 66). No one in the jury stands to give witness to hearing Socrates say anything of the sort that his accusers have charged. I do not believe that Socrates corrupts the youth, in fact the entire conversation contained in The Ethyphro is a testament to how Socrates is trying to help the young man recognize the folly of his ways. Philosophy is intended to help the youth live a more reasoned and well examined life, both of which are the opposite of corruption.
Looking more closely at the “unjust speech”, we see that it is not Socrates, but his accusers that utilize the unjust speech. The unjust speech is simply a way of speaking which makes the weaker argument the stronger. The reason why this form of speech is unjust is because it gives a master of this type of speech the ability to escape consequences for his action. Which means he would be above the law. For example, one could evade paying taxes to the tax collector if he were able to produce a seemingly reasonable argument that not paying taxes is the right thing to do. Socrates is not guilty of using the unjust speech, because in all his philosophical inquiries, he is never trying to benefit personally from them, he is not trying to escape any consequences for crimes or discretions. Socrates is simply in pursuit of the truth and a life well lived. His accusers on the other hand are entirely guilty of using the unjust speech. Aristophanes’s play is a complete fabrication of the character of Socrates and of philosophy, even though it is a comedy, its ultimate goal was to misrepresent Socrates and make him seem a danger to Athens in order to maintain the reigning aristocracy. A selfish goal on the part of Aristophanes, because he was part of that aristocracy.
Meletus also fabricated his accusations against Socrates due to the hatred that Meletus had towards Socrates for showing that the claimed wise men of Athens were not as wise as they claimed. As Socrates explains, “From among them Meletus attacked me, and Anytus and Lycon, Meletus vexed on behalf of the poets, and Anytus on behalf of the craftsmen, and Lycon on behalf of the orators. Therefore, as I said when I began, it would be a wonder to me if I should be able in this short time to take away from you this slander which has become so great. There you have the truth, men of Athens, and I speak without hiding anything from you, great or small in my speech. And yet I know rather well that I am making myself hated by just that conduct; which is also a proof that I am speaking the truth and that this is the prejudice against me and these are its causes” (Apology, 72-73). Meletus brought charges against Socrates not because he actually cared about the youth, the city, or about the gods, but simply to silence Socrates, the man who has embarrassed him and the Athenian aristocracy with his honest inquiries about important ideas. Meletus’s motivations were selfish and insincere; he was not a “good and patriotic” (73) man, in fact he was the opposite. He sought to make his inferior position stronger by using the law, unjustly, to silence Socrates, which is the definition of the unjust speech.
In conclusion, Socrates was a good and patriotic man, because he tried to better himself by pursuing essential truths for himself and he tried to improve the lives of his fellow Athenians by trying to spread this new way of self-examination and honest inquiry. Regardless of his questioning the traditions of city, he was also a principled man who respected the law, as we saw in the end of The Apology, when he accepted the verdict of the jury, even though he considered himself to be innocent, and in The Crito, when he was facing death itself, he refused to escape with Crito to circumvent his scheduled execution. Socrates believed it would have been unjust for him to escape the verdict when it was convenient for him, displaying his principled character and honor. It is justified to say that at the end of his life, thorough his philosophical inquiries, Socrates had achieved a thing that eludes many of us at the end of our lives, a sense of peace with one self.
- Plato: The Apology; http://www.sjsu.edu/people/james.lindahl/courses/Phil70A/s3/apology.pdf
- Plato: Crito; http://www.pitt.edu/~mthompso/readings/crito.pdf
- Plato: Euthyphro ; http://www.indiana.edu/~p374/Euthyphro.pdf