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Socrates Essay, Research Paper

Much controversy continues over Socrates’s attitude towards democracy. I.F. Stone, embarrassed that the first democracy should have killed a man for exercising freedom of speech and freedom of religion, attempted to justify this by going after Socrates as an enemy of democracy (The Trial of Socrates); but since Stone was busy defending Josef Stalin back in the Thirties, and even wrote a book in 1952, the Hidden History of the Korean War, defending the communist invasion of South Korea, his own democratic credentials are suspect. Indeed, an evaluation of Socrates essentially depends on the question of what democracy is supposed to be. That can be answered in due course.

There are three places in the Apology that provide evidence about Socrates’s attitude towards the democracy in Athens. The first is at 20e, where Socrates relates the story of Chaerephon asking Delphi if anyone was wiser than Socrates. He says that Chaerephon was his friend and the friend of many of the jury, sharing their exile and their return. Exile and return? Well, of course, the exile of the democrats from Athens, after the fall of the city in 404, and during the Spartan occupation and the regime of the Thirty Tyrants. That makes Chaerephon sound like a pretty serious partisan of the democracy. Would such a one think of Socrates as the wisest man, to the point of asking Delphi about it, if Socrates were conspicuously against the democracy? Not likely. That is not decisive evidence, naturally, but it is suggestive in connection with other things.

The next point, logically, is at 32c, where Socrates relates his experience under the Thirty Tyrants. An enemy of the democracy, and a sympathizer of the Spartans, should have been in seventh heaven after Sparta had actually conquered Athens and installed its sympathizers. But Socrates didn’t want to have anything to do with that government and crossed them to the extent that his life might have been in danger if they had not been overthrown. That complements the positive impression from the side of Chaerephon. The logically final point, however, occurs previously at 32b, where Socrates relates his actual clash with the power of the Assembly, over the question of trying the admirals from the battle of Arginusae. Socrates was the only one of the prytanes (in office through lot) to refuse to do anything contrary to the laws (par to*s n mous). In his view it was his duty to stand for the law and for justice despite the wishes of the Assembly. So he did so, at risk of prosecution or death.

To foil the will of the Assembly doesn’t sound very democratic, but then the will of the Assembly was often arbitrary and vicious. The will of the Assembly discredited the very idea of democracy for centuries. In Federalist Paper #10, James Madison comments on the problem of democracy to be overcome:

From this view of the subject it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert results from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.

Socrates himself was among the original type of “obnoxious individual” against whom a pure democracy may turn. A fine statement about the danger of the tyranny of the majority comes from Alexis de Tocqueville:

If it be admitted that a man, possessing absolute power, may misuse that power by wronging his adversaries, why should a majority not be liable to the same reproach? Men are not apt to change their characters by agglomeration; nor does their patience in the presence of obstacles increase with the consciousness of their strength. And for these reasons I can never willingly invest any number of my fellow creatures with that unlimited authority which I should refuse to any one of them.

James Fenimore Cooper, the author of classic American novels like The Last of the Mohicans, said in his political statement, The American Democrat, in 1838:

The common axiom of democracies, however, which says that “the majority must rule,” is to be received with many limitations. Were the majority of a country to rule without restraint, it is probable as much injustice and oppression would follow, as are found under the dominion of one.

By James Madison’s day some notion of a workable democracy returned only with an eye to the very kind of criticism that Socrates implies in the Apology: that even the Will of the People must be subject to the Rule of Law. That is already implicit in the idea of democracy as Thucydides (in The Peloponnesian War) expresses it in the funeral oration delivered by the great Athenian leader Pericles:

We are free and tolerant in our private lives; but in public affairs we keep to the law. This is because it commands our deep respect.

We give our obedience to those whom we put in positions of authority, and we obey the laws themselves, especially those which are for the protection of the oppressed, and those unwritten laws which it is an acknowledged shame to break.

The rule of law means that it is not left to the discretion of those in executive power to decide what actions to approve and what actions to condemn. They must follow the standards laid down in the law. Just as important, however, the rule of law does not mean that any actions can be approved or condemned just because some legislative authority happens to pass a law about them. Pericles’s reference to “unwritten laws” is consistent with the views of John Locke (The Second Treatise of Civil Government), Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and even Martin Luther King Jr. [1] that the fundamental basis of positive law is the unwritten natural law dictated by reason itself (ultimately by God, as far as they were concerned), and that the fundamental protection of the individual is not in some positive grant of rights by legislative authority but in the natural rights which are part of the unwritten natural law. Thus, the Ninth Amendment of the United States Constitution says:

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

The “others” are clearly natural rights. Yet it is now common for people, even lawyers and judges, to “deny or disparage” certain rights, like privacy, just because they are not mentioned in the Constitution. Perhaps such people would do well to actually read the Bill of Rights.

Those who “disparage” unwritten laws and rights often defend the rule of law as a principle of blind obedience; and they use it to argue that people must obey written laws whether they agree with them or not [2]. Indeed, that conception of the rule of law would have forbidden the American Revolution, or any acts of civil disobedience–which were justified by Martin Luther King by quoting St. Augustine that, “An unjust law is no law at all.” But how, one might ask, can people just go around judging for themselves whether a law is just or not? The answer is that they have to, and that is the principle of freedom of conscience–as when Socrates tells the jury, “I will obey the god rather than you,” or when Martin Luther himself told the Imperial Diet and the Emperor Charles V at Worms in 1521, “Here I stand; I can do no other; God help me!” (”Hier st nde ich, ich kann nicht andres, so hilf ich Gott!”). The rule of law is not contrary to that; for the rule of law is not an injunction to blind obedience.

To be “ruled by laws, not by men,” is the old expression. Now, American colonies declaring independence, or a jury nullifying a law to find a defendant innocent, or a protester practicing civil disobedience, are not engaged in ruling. Instead, they are doing the precise opposite: negating the instructions and actions of government. The principle of the rule of law does the same kind of thing, for it means that the authority and power of government and of individuals in office is limited to those spheres, those issues, and those actions that are specified by the law. The rule of law denies to government unlimited or discretionary power and authority. The rule of law is thus part of a system of checks and balances to prevent dictatorship and despotism. Civil disobedience, etc. is simply to say that the authority of government has gone too far and must be further limited.

Whether it is properly understood or not, much talk about democracy holds the rule of law in contempt, either because it contravenes the Will of the People or because it also denies power to those who would rule according to Jean Jacques Rousseau’s idea of the “General Will”: The “General Will” of the people is what they would want if they knew what was best for themselves. Such a theory could justify, and has justified, the worst tyranny, like the Soviet Union, as in fact a “democracy.” It is a theory implicit in Marx’s notion of “false consciousness”: that people have “false” desires and don’t really know what they want–but we can know for them. Karl Popper (in The Open Society and Its Enemies) traces all that sort of thing to Plato: the problem Plato has with democracy in the Republic is not the absence of the rule of law but just the fact that the wrong people are in power–people without the proper virtues. With the philosophers in power, ex hypothese, the wise will rule–although Plato himself, like Socrates, elsewhere (as in the Symposium) defines the philosophers as those who are not wise but are simply aware of that.

The rule of law represents one aspect of living with limited knowledge, the ouk o da, “I do not know,” of Socrates, that neither the People nor selected rulers can be trusted to know the good well enough to rule at their discretion or to abridge the principles and rights that exist in natural law and can be set down in fundamental law like the Bill of Rights. Without hoi sopho , “the wise,” no one can be trusted with too much power. The rule of law is the shield of every honest person against those who want to claim superior power out of their supposed superior understanding. That was the principle of the Constitution, though, as Jefferson anticipated, it has been steadily eroded by the natural power-seeking of government, the craven accommodations of the courts, and the constant quest of those pursuing their own interests through the authority, agency, and coercion of government.

Thus, Socrates may be seen not merely as a partisan of democracy, but as a partisan of a proper and true democracy, a constitutional democracy, where the People and the government cannot be trusted with absolute and arbitrary authority any more than a king or dictator can be. Such a democracy is a compromise and is accepted, not because the majority can be always trusted to be morally superior, but because it may be less susceptible to abuse than other forms of government. Thus Winston Churchill said that democracy is the “worst form of government,” just better than all the others. Churchill echoes an earlier statement by James Fenimore Cooper again, that “We do not adopt the popular polity because it is perfect, but because it is less imperfect than any other.” That, indeed, is the democracy of Locke, Jefferson, and Madison: the Liberal Democracy of the 19th century. But it is not democracy as many people refer to it today. If the Law is whatever some court (even the Supreme Court) happens to interpret it to be, then none of us can rely on it not to be interpreted away as a protection. This is much of what has happened, just as Thomas Jefferson anticipated that the Supreme Court, although a check on the other branches of the federal government, would not impose a check on the federal government as a whole, to which the Court itself belongs. That is why the federal government, with zero authority from the enumerated powers of the Constitution (violating the Tenth Amendment), can seize your house (violating the Eighth Amendment) and put you in jail just for growing a marijuana plant in your yard–because, I suppose, it is bad for you. This would have appalled and astonished most Americans living before this century. It would have outraged the likes of Jefferson. It is greater tyranny than King George III ever dared exercise. And it is justified, not by the principles of Liberal Democracy, but by the principles of Social Democracy: which abridges freedom for the purpose of the “social good,” as that is determined, naturally, through political power and the majority.

The Free Market

The Socratic principle of the limitation of our knowledge may also be seen as a fundamental ground for capitalism and the functioning of the free market as understood by Ludwig von Mises (Socialism), F.A. Hayek (The Road to Serfdom and The Fatal Conceit), and, currently, Milton Friedman (Free to Choose) and Thomas Sowell (Knowledge and Decisions, Markets and Minorities, Race and Culture, etc.). One of the basic principles of all of them–a basic principle of the whole Austrian School of economics–is that individuals, or special organizations, cannot have all the knowledge that would be necessary to calculate the value, as a relationship of supply and demand, and so the proper prices, of things in the market. There is just too much to know for it to be rapidly acquired and continually updated, especially when demand depends on what people want, and this changes and generally cannot be known at all until people actually spend their money. Only the free market itself can serve to coordinate the dispersed knowledge of multitudes of producers and consumers into the determination of a market clearing price. Anything else will not clear the market–i.e. it will produce surpluses (e.g. unemployment–a surplus of labor) or shortages (e.g. rental housing in New York City under rent control)–waste and inefficiency.

Thus, in 1920 von Mises began to argue that, since the knowledge of the needs, desires, and abilities of people is too vast to acquire, and so, since thereby prices cannot be calculated, an economy without a free market, i.e. socialism, cannot succeed. This is a lesson well illustrated by the Soviet block states that boasted for decades about the rationality and efficiency of their “planned” economies. They were neither rational nor efficient–relying instead on Marxist pseudo-science bolstered by tyranny. In fact they were almost unbelievably wasteful and inefficient, leaving shortages of nearly everything, poor quality, etc. Equally important to economic calculation is the fact that anybody anywhere can dream up some new innovation that changes production and the quality of life. That is radically non-predictable and led Karl Popper to contend that there cannot be a predictive “science” of history, or of science itself, the way Hegel or Marx wanted. Today the theory of chaotic events puts the stamp of mathematical description on non-predictiveness. But all this is a lesson poorly learned by many still pushing “industrial policy” and economic planning in the West.

Without a free market, somebody else must decide what kinds of good things will be produced for us. Even if there is some way for us to communicate our desires to them, that is not good enough. They will decide whether our desires are “socially worthy” of being satisfied. The same goes for new products. The entrepreneur who proposes a new product must run the gamut of bureaucrats who will decide whether the product is worthy of being produced. In the Soviet Union, the result of a setup like that was that what people wanted was pretty much irrelevant. There were shortages even of things that were regarded by one and all as necessities. And nothing new ever got produced. Even technological innovations in production that were regarded by higher authorities as brilliant and necessary often took decades to be implemented, if ever. In the free market, an entrepreneur produces a new product without asking anyone’s permission, offers it on the market, and then sees if people will buy it. What people then want is evident in what gets bought. Audio cassette tapes, CD’s, and VHS machines get bought; Edsels, 8-Track tapes, and Beta machines don’t. People go see Terminator II, Jurassic Park, and The Fugitive; they don’t go see Super Mario Brothers or The Last Action Hero. The result of this is a system damned as “commercialism” by the authoritarian Left and as “permissiveness” by the authoritarian Right: Each, of course, regards the things that people are willing to buy as unworthy. What they want is the power to prohibit people from producing what might be wanted and from buying what is wanted. Each see people as victims either of false consciousness produced by advertising (the Left) or simply of moral depravity, of whatever source (the Right).

At the same time each might claim to be implementing the democratic will of the people. Sometimes they are. Often they are not. Even if they are, their prohibitions are usually an example of the tyranny of the majority. A majority of Americans believe that mood or mind altering drugs are unworthy. Because it took more than a century for the clear understanding of the role of American government to be eroded, it was not until 1914 that any drugs were actually prohibited (opium first); but since then it has gradually come to be the case that every drug is prohibited until it is approved by the FDA–which now wants to extend its power to vitamins as well. And if you are found in unauthorized possession of a “controlled substance,” you can be put in prison, your property seized, and your life deliberately ruined. All to persuade you either that such drugs are unworthy or that you don’t have the right to decide on your own. But force and terror have never been persuasive as arguments–especially when they involve blatant violations of the Constitution as any literate person with a copy of it can discover.


Aristotle reasoned that not everything can be proven. If we ask that everything be proven, then nothing would ever get proven, since we can demand a new proof for each answer we can give. But if not everything can be proven, then there must be some propositions that don’t need to be proven. Those propositions are called, by definition, the “first principles of demonstration.” The classic example of first principles of demonstration are the axioms of geometry. The question then is, How are first principles known to be true? How are they verified? That is the “Problem of First Principles.” Aristotle thought that first principles are self-evident: He said that their truth is intuitively known through no s, “mind”. But to get to the point where we can understand first principles and get that intuitive insight, Aristotle thought that we relied on experience and used the logic of induction: An inductive inference is the generalization that results from counting individual objects or events. The “Problem of Induction” is the realization that we can never know how many individuals or events we need to count before we are justified in making the generalization. That is why Aristotle introduced no s; for as soon as we reach the point where first principles are seen to be self-evident, then it is no longer necessary to answer the Problem of Induction.

Francis Bacon believed that empirical science uses induction, and his views influenced everyone’s view of science until this century. But Bacon didn’t believe in self-evident first principles and couldn’t answer the objection that induction never proves anything. Nor could anybody else. Aristotle, of course, understood the difficulty that would create, but it finally wasn’t until David Hume that the point was really driven home in modern philosophy. Finally, in The Logic of Scientific Discovery, Karl Popper shattered the conundra of verification and induction by just dismissing them. Induction never had proven anything. Aristotle’s problem of verifying first principles is resolved by Popper with the observation that deductive arguments can go in two directions: ponendo ponens ["affirming by affirming": if P implies Q, and P is true, then Q is true] held out the mirage of verification, but a deductive argument can also use tollendo tollens ["denying by denying": if P implies Q, and Q is not true, then P is not true], which means that premises can be falsified even if they cannot be verified [3]. Replacing verification with falsification explains many peculiarities in the history of science and is, indeed, the “logic of scientific discovery,” although people like Thomas Kuhn, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, have muddied the waters with other issues (some of them legitimate, some not).

In relation to the Apology, the matter of interest is how Socratic Method uses falsification. The form of Socratic discourse is that the interlocutor cities belief X (e.g. Euthyphro, that the pious is what is loved by gods). Socrates then asks if the interlocutor also happens to believe Y (e.g. Euthyphro, that the gods fight among themselves). With assent, Socrates then leads the interlocutor through to agreement that Y implies not-X (that the pious is both loved by the gods and hated by them). The interlocutor then must decide whether he prefers X or Y. That doesn’t prove anything, but one or the other is falsified: just as in science a falsifying observation may be itself rejected instead of the theory it discredits. Although Y often has more prima facie credibility, the heat of the argument is liable to lead the interlocutor into rejecting Y for the sake of maintaining their argument for X. Socrates then, of course, finds belief Z, which also implies not-X. After enough of that, X starts looking pretty bad; and the bystanders and readers, at least, are in no doubt about the outcome of the examination.

Why it was always possible to find another belief that would imply not-X is a good question. The late Plato and Socrates scholar Gregory Vlastos thought that Socrates already believed, and Plato certainly believed, that it was because not only did everyone already know the truth, but that they were really unable to consistently function in life without it. The principle of inquiry, then, was that only the truth allows for a completely consistent system of belief. That is not because of the inherent logical qualities of the beliefs (as though they were all self-evidently true), but just because people will always use them. As Hume said, whatever our philosophical doubts, we leave the room by the door and not by the window–the same Hume who ruled out, not just miracles, but also free will and chance because he thought they all violated the same principle of causality that he so famously doubted. That still, in sense, doesn’t prove anything positive, but it does give Socrates, and us, an endless opportunity to pursue the inquiry.

Socratic Method thus shares the logic of falsification with Popper’s philosophy of science and thereby avoids the pitfalls that Aristotle encountered after he formulated the theory of deduction and faced the problem of first principles and of induction. Both Socrates and Popper are left in a certain condition of ignorance because the weeding process of falsification never leaves us in a final and absolute cognitive state: we always may discover some inconsistency (or some observation) that will require us to sort things out again. Our ignorance, however, may be of a peculiar kind. We may actually know something that is true, but the limitation will be in our understanding of it. Galileo was in a position to know that the sun was a star, but his understanding of what a star was still was most rudimentary. Isaac Newton had a theory of gravity that still works just fine for moderate velocities and masses–the force of gravity still declines as the square of the distance–but Einstein provided a deeper theory that encompassed and explained more. When it comes to matters of value that scientific method cannot touch, Plato had a theory of Recollection to explain our access to knowledge apart from experience, and his theory was actually true in the sense that we do have access to knowledge apart from experience; but Immanuel Kant ultimately provides a much deeper, more subtle, and less metaphysically speculative theory that does the same thing.



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Copyright (c) 1996, 2000 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved


Money in Plato’s

Apology of Socrates


Socrates mentions that the Sophist Evenus charges a “moderate fee” of 5 minas. But how “moderate” is that? What kind of money are we talking about? Liddell and Scott [An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon, 1889, 1964] give the value of an Athenian mina as 4 1s 3d (4 pounds sterling, 1 shilling, 3 pence), based on the silver value of the drachma. They wrote in 1888. Starting from that, on the gold standard (at $4.86+ to the pound), a mina would have been $19.77, a drachma (100 per mina) 20 cents, and an obol (what the boatman Charon charges the dead to ferry them across the Styx into Hades — 6 per drachma) 3 cents. Since then,[11] until 1990, the dollar has inflated by about a factor of 15. So a mina would now be $296.56 — let’s say $300 — a drachma about $3, and an obol about 50 cents.

However, silver was worth more in the Athenian market that this by a considerable factor. John Burnet, who in 1924 published the Greek text that is actually used by G.M.A. Grube for our translation, mentions that five minas was “about the price of a superior oitek s,” a household slave, and that one mina is mentioned by Aristotle as the common price for a ranson of a prisoner of war [John Burnet, Plato's Euthyphro, Apology of Socrates, and Crito, Oxford University Press, 1924, 1967, pp. 87 & 160]. Will Durant estimated that a drachma was worth about a dollar in 1938: “A drachma in the first half of the fifth century buys a bushel of grain, as a dollar does in twentieth-century America” [In The Life of Greece, volume II of The Story of Civilization, now on CD-ROM by the World Library, Inc.]. The editors of our text [Plato, Five Dialogues, Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo] also mention that a drachma was the standard daily wage of a laborer in late fifth century Athens.

Comparing this with modern wages is difficult, since real wages increase over time as productivity and the size of an economy increase. For example, Henry Ford increased the daily wage of his workers in 1913 from $2 to $5.[12] That $2 wage was already high. The old saying, “Another day, another dollar,” reflects circumstances when a dollar a day was a good wage. A recent movie, The Picture Bride, mentions that Japanese cane field workers in Hawaii in 1918 were paid 65 a day.[13] When the sixteen year old John D. Rockefeller got a job as a bookkeeper in 1855, he was paid 50 a day, which is what David Horowitz tell us his grandfather was paid (for a six day week) in a sweatshop when he arrived from Russia in 1905 (in the book Radical Son [The Free Press, 1997], p.9) — $6 a week would be $156 a year, or $1240 in 1990 dollars, which is still comparable to the per capital income of the United States in 1945: $1,223. Union Civil War soldiers were paid $13 a month, which comes down to about 43 a day. Now, if a gold standard drachma would be worth 20 cents, then we might estimate, very roughly and conservatively, using the dollar-a-day wage, another factor of 5 to get us from the gold standard back to Athenian silver. In 1990 dollars this puts the mina at $1500, the drachma at $15, and the obol at $2.50.[14]

With that in hand, Evenus’s fee, the first sum of money mentioned in the Apology, would be $7500. That’s a lot more than what it costs to go to Valley College, though comparable to going to the University of California these days. By comparison, Protagoras is said to have charged 100 minas, or $150,000![15] Not suprisingly, according to Plato in the Meno, Protagoras died a very wealthy man, even wealthier than Phidias, the sculptor who did the sculptures on the Parthenon in Athens and the great statue of Zeus at Olympia, regarded as one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

The second sum mentioned in the Apology is the cost of a book by Anaxagoras: 1 drachma. So that’s about $15 — a little expensive, but no more expensive, for an era before printing presses, than a lot of books today, and a lot less expensive than many textbooks.

The third sum mentioned is the fine assessed at prosecutions that fail to gain a fifth of the votes of the jurors: 1000 drachmas — $15,000. A very large fine.

The fourth sum is what Socrates proposes as a fine: 1 mina. Then he raises this to 30 minas (the fifth sum), with the support of Plato and others. So that’s $1500 and then $45,000. Xenophon says that Socrates’s entire net worth was only 5 minas, so even 1 mina was a lot of money to him; and 30 minas was far beyond his means.

Another unit of money at Athens was the talent (60 minas), which would then be $90,000. A few talents are going to add up to some real money. J.B. Bury [A History of Greece, 1900] says that the “tribute” Athens received from the League of Delos was about 460 talents a year. So that’s at least $41,400,000. By comparison, in 55 BC, King Ptolemy XII Auletes of Egypt (father of the famous Cleopatra), who had been deposed from his throne, talent 60 minas

mina 60 shekels,

100 drachmas

stater 2 shekels

shekel 10 oboloi

drachma 6 oboloi

obolos 1/10 shekel

bribed the Roman governor of Syria to restore him with the promise of 10,000 talents, perhaps the entire annual revenue of Egypt. That would be $900,000,000, almost a billion dollars, nothing to sneeze at even today.

Comparing Athenian money with that of other Greek cities gets pretty complicated. The whole system is basically a Babylonian system of weights: 60 shekels (Bab. shiqlu, Gk. siglos) to the mina (Bab. mana, Gk. mna), and 60 minas to the talent (Bab. biltu, Gk. talanton). The first coins (struck by the Kingdom of Lydia) were staters, equal to two shekels. The odd number of obols to the drachma may result from their being a tenth of a shekel. Having ten obols to a shekel and 100 drachmas to a mina represent a partial decimalization of the basic Babylonian sexagesimal (base 60) system.


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Copyright (c) 1996, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2001 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved


Women in the Apology

The most striking thing about women in the Apology of Socrates is their absence from where we might expect them. Only two specific women are mentioned: 1) the Pythia, the priestess of Apollo, who answers Chaerephon’s question that no one is wiser than Socrates (21a); and 2) Thetis, the mother of Achilles (who himself is not mentioned by name but only referred to as the “son of Thetis”), who warns him that he will die if he kills the Trojan hero Hector (28c). Only two other times does Socrates even mention women: 1) a disparaging reference that those who embarrass the city by coming into court, weeping and carrying on to win the sympathy of the jury, “are in no way better than women” (35c); and 2) a remark that Socrates would enjoy questioning people in the hereafter, “both men and women” (41c), although everyone he actually names is male. Socrates does not mention questioning women in his investigations. Nor do women occur either as spectators to his questions or in relation to all his talk about educating the “youth.” The “youth” are obviously all young men. And again, Socrates mentions his family and his sons without mentioning his wife. Plato relates some relationships Socrates had with women (especially with Diotima in the Symposium), but those may be fictional. The only episode of Socrates questioning a woman that is clearly historical is related by Xenophon in his Recollections of Socrates: Socrates questions the courtesan Theodot , who is famous for her beauty and poses for artists.

Socrates lives in a world where the spheres of life of men and women were radically separate. In Plato’s Symposium, which is a drinking party, both men and women are drinking and partying, but they do so in separate parts of the house. The musicans and dancers go back and forth between the men’s party and the women’s party. Political life was regarded by the Greeks as part of the male sphere of things, and so there were certainly no women in Socrates’s jury; but it is hard to know whether there were any in the audience. There has been some dispute about whether women attended Greek plays, the comedies and tragedies, when they were staged — though there are references by Plato to women in theater audiences. We have this difficulty in part because it was not considered proper for strangers to address respectable women in public. The device of addressing a group of strangers as though there were only men present is also conspicious in the New Testament. Note Matthew 5:27, where there were certainly women present in the crowd that Jesus spoke to, here in the Sermon on the Mount, but he merely says “everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” There is nothing about what happens if a woman looks at a man lustfully. We are left to assume that this must be equally as bad for women, but Jesus doesn’t actually say so.

There certainly were no women actors in Greek plays, which would have been unacceptably scandalous — the same situation as in Shakespearian Britain and in the Kabuki plays of Tokugawa Japan. By Roman times there were some female actors, but when the future Roman Emperor Justinian married the former actress Theodora, they were afflicted with vicious rumors from then on that she had been a prostitute. Unmarried Greek women attended events like the Olympic games — where the athletes went naked — but married women did not. Respectable women did not even go shopping in the marketplace. The only women who freely moved in public life were courtesans (like Theodot ).

Although Plato will later question separate spheres and roles for the sexes (at least among his Guardians) and admitted women to the Academy (Axiothea of Phlius and Lasthenia of Mantinea — as Pythagoras is supposed to have admitted at least one woman, Theano, to his order), Socrates does not. Indeed, the spheres of life of men and women remained radically different in every culture and civilization until this century, and that situation was not seriously questioned in political discourse until within the last two centuries — a process whose first major influential statements perhaps were Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) and John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women (1869), which were, significantly, written first in the shadow of the American and French Revolutions and then after the abolition of slavery by both Britain and the United States. In traditional cultures, however, the idea that everyone should be free to do the same kinds of things would not even make sense for men, let alone for women. Some feminists talk about the “silence” of women in something like Greek literature. The great poetess Sapph was the exception. Will Durant mentions (in The Story of Civilization) that Plato wrote about her “an ecstatic epigram”:

Some say there are Nine Muses. How careless they are!

Behold, Sappho of Lesbos is the Tenth!

But of course, besides most women, most everyone alive at the time was silent. The rare thing is that we happen to hear from anyone. Nor is it surprising that writing belonged, mostly, to the sphere of men: in all three thousand years of Egyptian history, we have many statues of scribes, usually shown sitting cross-legged with a papyrus scroll laid across their laps, and not a single one of them is a woman.

What is perhaps surprising about Greece is the degree to which the role women played in Greek life was conspicious, not hidden. A lot of that was because of religion, where women participated at all levels, from the Pythia and other priestesses on down. Aristophanes’s play Thesmophoriazusae deals with an annual three day festival (the Thesmophoria) in which the women of Athens took over the Hill of the Pnyx, where the Assembly met. The festival was religious, but Aristophanes’s play is about the women prosecuting the playwright Euripides for slandering women (because of characters like Medea). The possession of the Pnyx thus implied, however briefly, the powers of the Assembly. Aristophanes wrote another play, Ecclesiazusae, the “Women’s Assembly,” but this seems to have been an imaginary function, not based on something like the Thesmophoria. Aristophanes exploits this kind of thing for its comic possibilities (as he does in Lysistrata, where the women of Athens go on a sex strike until the men agree to end the war with Sparta), but such themes also have a serious side, i.e. the implied judgment that Athenian men have so botched political affairs that it is time for the women to put in their two cents

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