Due to experiencing the volatile state of the Athenian government, it is not surprising that Socrates had much to say on the topic of political philosophy. Central to his political theory was his position on how citizens ought to approach ethics and politics. In the Apology, Socrates’ conduct demonstrates his belief that citizens must not be complacent when it comes to political virtue. In order to push citizens out of complacency, Socrates used a method called the “elecnhus” to prod citizens to discover the true definition of virtues (Jowett, 2009).
In doing this, Socrates hoped to promote a rigorous understanding of traditional moral virtues; an understanding of what courage, justice, and wisdom, truly meant (Jowett, 2009). At first glance, it seems that Socrates is promoting the appreciation of the traditional virtues, and is therefore a conservative. On the contrary, I will argue that Socrates’ conservative rationale serves only as a diversion from his radical intentions. In defending this statement, I will first outline Socrates’ conduct and motives in the Apology.
Second, I will present the argument for how this behaviour can be interpreted as being conservative using narratives from Crito and The Republic. Lastly, I will argue why this behaviour instead demonstrates that Socrates was a radical. In the Apology, Plato provides a narrative of Socrates’ defence for using the elenchus, an exhaustive questioning method, to stir the position of Athenian citizens on traditional values (Jowett, 2009). Derived from various arguments in The Apology, Crito, and The Republic, it can be found that Socrates had two motives for his conduct.
The first motive stems from his notion of benefit in the spiritual realm, which is derived from his theory of virtue. He held that the best life for humans is a life of virtue, and a life of virtue entailed striving to comprehend the true essence of values (Jowett, 2009). The practice of valuing true knowledge was seen to be intrinsically good for citizens, for it adhered to the success of the human soul (Jowett, 2009). Further, Socrates held that evil in this context was the ignorance of the intrinsic worth of the traditional values, and complacency when it comes to abiding by such values (Jowett, 2009).
Therefore, Socrates’ first motive for using the elenchus method to stir his fellow citizens, was so that they could abandon their ignorance and begin to obey the true nature of human life, that is a life and soul of virtue (Jowett, 2009). By doing this, citizens would adhere to the true meaning behind traditional values. The second motive stems from his notion of benefit in the worldly realm, derived from his theory on laws. When it came to justice, there were multiple versions of what acting justice entailed. For instance, according to Cephalus, it was to honour your obligation to the city (Plato, 1974, 674).
For Polemarchus it was reward and punishment to those who rightfully deserved it (Plato, 1974, 676). However, the orthodox versions of justice was that it involved simply adhering to the laws (Plato, 1974, 687). While this does contribute to a just social arrangement, in that everyone performs the role appropriate to them, it does not address the matters of ethics and law. On that matter, Socrates observed that simply obeying these laws did not automatically entail that the person was acting just, this is because laws are vulnerable to being unjust (Plato, 1974, 701).
This introduced a concept that there exists an essence of justice, such that “there is an essential nature of justice and injustice and what a perfectly just and perfectly unjust man would be like (Plato, 1964, 472b). Without knowledge of the essence of justice, individuals would only be acting just by coincidence, for they would not be able to determine whether their actions were just or not (Plato, 1964, 458a). Contributing to this argument, Socrates saw that laws, and everything else in the physical world, were malleable (Plato, 1974, 98, 505c).
This meant that the laws were defined by whomever was in power at the time; in democracy it was the majority, and in tyranny it was the tyrant. Therefore, Socrates held that it was necessary for citizens themselves to comprehend the essence of justice so that they could avoid being slaves to those who managed to hold legal influence at the time (Plato, 1974, 98, 505c). Such that those who held legal influence may be blind towards the “good” or essence of justice (Plato, 1974, 98, 505c).
Therefore, Socrates’ second motivation for using the elenchus was in order to promote the valuing of justice, and other traditional values, in hopes that Athenian citizens could identify for themselves the things which adhere to the essence of these values. Accordingly, with these two motives in mind, Socrates engaged with the citizens of Athens, invoking them to question the traditional Greek values. His mission was to give birth in them a desire to understand the true essence of values, and then to be able to recognize it in the physical world.
In response to such conduct, Socrates was accused of corrupting the youth, and questioning Greek life, giving rise to the context in The Apology. From the perspective of the Athenian jury, based on his charges, it appeared that Socrates’ conduct was radical. For the second part of this essay, by using his two motives as a reference, I will now explore the various arguments for why Socrates’ was not a radical, but instead a conservative. For the purpose of this essay, I will hold that the definition of conservative means the preservation of traditional values.
Based on his first motive, in order to encourage citizens to abandon their ignorance and begin to virtuously appreciate the traditional Greek value, Socrates openly admitted that he had to push citizens to challenge and question these values (Jowett, 2009). It was seen as radical because such questioning of traditional values was seen as insulting and violating these same values (Jowett, 2009). While this may be seen as radicalism, it is clear that this is not the case when Socrates’ concept of the spiritual realm and the forms are introduced.
Stemming from his theory of values, Socrates believed that all traditional Greek values existed in a pure and absolute form that could only become known through reason (Jowett, 2009). Therefore, the purpose of questioning the traditional values was only in order to stimulate the realization of the true essence of these values. Socrates believed that by doing so, it was the ultimate act of respect to traditional moral values, and the first motive can thus be interpreted as conservative.
However, the questioning of traditional values ultimately entailed the questioning of Athenian laws. While this also may be seen as radicalism, it is clear that this is not the case when Socrates’ distinguishes the difference between the worldly realm and the spiritual realm. Socrates believed that all traditional Greek values were embodied in a universal law within the spiritual realm, that is above the malleable Athenian law which existed in the physical realm. While Socrates respected and abided by the Athenian law, he was also critical of the nature of such laws.
Socrates explains that, because these Athenian laws were malleable to the distribution of political power, these laws were vulnerable to deviation from the traditional values (Plato, 1974, 98, 505c). By promoting the questioning of Athenian laws, Socrates believed that he was preserving the traditional values in the legal system. This traces back to his previous argument, that justice is not simply obeying the law (Plato, 1974, 701). This serves to show that Socrates’ conduct which encouraged the questioning of Athenian law was not radical, but consistent with conservatism.
Another piece of evidence was Socrates’ response to escaping prison, as seen in Critos. Here Socrates is offered help from his friend Critos, to escape his death sentence from the Athenian court, but declines out of his respect for the Athenian law (Gallop, 1997, 36, 45a). This is depicted when Socrates states, “I cannot now reject the very principles that I previously adopted, … and I respect and honour the same ones I did before” (Gallop, 1997, 36, 46c).
Further, Socrates also embraced the “obey or persuade” principle, where if a person disagrees with the law, they must systemically change it, or accept and obey it (Gallop, 1997, 40, 52a). Therefore, Socrates’ acceptance of his death sentence from the Athenian court is an ultimate submission to preserving the integrity of the justice system. Accordingly, while Socrates was deemed a radical by the Athenian courts for promoting the questioning of traditional values and Athenian law, it could be argued that he was actually a conservative who was promoting the appreciation of these values and reinforcing them in Athenian laws.
This is defended by the forfeiting of his life in the name of adhering to the justice system. On the contrary, I will now argue for a different interpretation of these pieces of evidence to show that Socrates was indeed a radical who disguised his intentions under a conservative facade. Radicalism will be treated as the converse of conservativism, which will be defined as promoting political reform and deviation from traditional values. The starting point of this argument is that, while Socrates condemns disobeying the law for it is analogous to disobeying your parents, he does not say it is wrong try to change it (Gallop, 1997, 40, 52a).
In alignment with radicalism, Socrates sought to be a catalyst of change change in Athens. Although Socrates claimed to be promoting the appreciation of traditional values, what he actually was doing was promoting a change in the way Athenians appreciated these values. Traditionally, these values were undertaken in order to avoid problems in the physical world (Jowett, 2009). For instance, justice was valued for its ability to maintain order and a functioning society. Socrates promulgated a different reason to pursue traditional values, that is to provide benefit in a spiritual manner (Jowett, 2009).
This is reflected in his theory of the soul, where he promoted the discipline of appetite and spirit by reason (Cornford, 1974, 23, 428d). For Socrates, the purpose of disciplining the soul was was to pursue spiritual virtue. This is a deviation in the way traditional values were appreciated in Athens. Rather than moderation of courage being pursued to prevent death from arrogance or shame from cowardice, Socrates held that moderation of courage should be pursued in order to promote a virtuous soul.
Therefore, it can be argued that Socrates is advocating a departure from the physical world to the spiritual world, in the attitude by which Athenians ought to engage traditional values. The effect of a departure from the way in which traditional values are engaged, is depicted in his conversation with Crito. While Socrates states that he is forfeiting his life out of respect for the Athenian law, now that we understand his position on the difference in importance between spiritual and worldly values, the message he is sending can be interpreted differently.
There are two points that give rise to this new interpretation. The first is that in Socrates’ comparison of harming the soul with harming the body, he states that only the individual himself can harm his own soul (Gallop, 1997, 37, 48a). This meant that only by submitting to unvirtuous behaviour, will an individual tarnish his own soul (Gallop, 1997, 37, 47a). As a result, if Socrates were to escape prison, he would be harming his soul in order to avert physical harm. The second point is that Socrates values the preservation of the soul over the preservation of the body (Gallop, 1997, 37, 47a).
This is seen when Socrates questions “are our lives worth living with a poor or corrupted body? ” (Gallop, 1997, 37, 47e). Taking these two points into consideration, it is possible to interpret Socrates’ forfeiting of his life as a mockery of the Athenian legal punishment in order to adhere to his own virtues. The message he is sending is that individuals ought to pursue their interpretation of the traditional values, and in the case where they are punished for it, it will not matter because harming the body is insignificant compared to harming the soul.
This is again seen in when he states that we should not fear the opinion of the majority, but should only concern ourselves with the opinion of the expert (Gallop, 1997, 37, 47a). Accordingly, while Socrates was sometimes portrayed as being conservative for promoting the appreciation of traditional values and for forfeiting his life in the name of the justice system, when his theory of the spiritual and physical realm are introduced, two points show that he is not a conservative. The first point is that he is promoting a deviation in the way traditional values are engaged.
The second point is that he encourages other citizens to deviate regardless of the physical harm that may be done to them. Based on these two points, I hold that Socrates’ use of the elenchus to stir Athenians out of complacency is radical. In conclusion, Socrates’ use of the elenchus was openly accepted to be motivated by a desire to stir Athenian citizens out of complacency. The question that was the focus of this essay was whether his intentions behind this stirring was conservative, to reinforce and maintain the traditional Greek values, or radical, to stimulate a new approach to values.
There was evidence which defended that Socrates was a conservative, however, it was shown that this conservative motive was only a front. Evidently, his conduct and theories suggest that Socrates was more on the side of a radical. Cornford, M. (1974). The republic. New York: Oxford University Press. Gallop, D. (1997). Crito. New York: Oxford University Press. Gallop, D. (1997). The Republic. New York: Oxford University Press. Jowett, B. (2009). Apology. Retrieved from http://classics. mit. edu/Plato/apology. html.
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