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Socrates And Athenian Democrac Essay, Research Paper

With Socrates came a revolution in all manners of thought. As, perhaps, the most influential of philosophers, and also one of the best known, it is truly unfortunate he left the future so little of his theories. Only through the writings of his students have we any idea of his philosophy. In the writing of Plato much thought is given to the concept of Socrates’ opinion of Athenian democracy. By examining Athenian democracy I will argue that Socrates makes a persuasive account of the limitations he sees in the Athenian system of government.

Fifth Century B.C. Athens was the world’s first democracy. From being governed by kings, it had gradually opened the franchise from a monarchy, ruled by the king, to rich landowners who made up the citizenry. Every citizen was expected to govern and perform military service for his city. However, the term citizenship was only occupied by those who had wealth, military training, were born to citizens and were men of at least eighteen years of age. According to the constitution, “eligibility for office depended on birth and wealth” (Aristotle, pg. 211 III).

Athens was characterized as a democracy because of the daily meetings held in the agora or the marketplace to discuss and vote on public issues.

Here each individual is interested not only in his own affairs but in the affairs of the state as well: even those who are mostly occupied with their own business are extremely well informed on general politics – this is a peculiarity of ours: we do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business: we say that he has no business here at all” (MacIvor, 2000, pg. 35).

The assumption in the above passage is that because citizens are wealthy they were informed on the principles of the city and were capable of ruling it. For example, when Solon, who established the constitution, divided the people into four property classes according to wealth. Not only were they distinguished between the amount of property they occupied, but also their ability to maintain a horse. “A horse stands by, showing the connection between the Hippeis (a property class) and being able to maintain a horse” (Aristotle, VII (4), pg. 215). Socrates criticized the citizens of Athens for being preoccupied with wealth rather than wisdom and virtue. Thereby rendering them incapable of making important political decisions.

Throughout the Apology Socrates is defending himself against charges of being a professor of “things in the sky and below the earth” (Apology, 19 b, pg. 39) and of “corrupting the minds of the young, and of believing in supernatural things of his own invention instead of gods recognized by the State” (Apology, 24 b-c, pg. 46). He explains and defends his beliefs and methods. This method of inquiry and refutation enables Socrates to question others about wisdom and virtue when they have answered inadequately. His main aim is to get the citizens of Athens to care for virtue and for the improvement of their souls. Socrates seeks the known beliefs in people, because he knows how to get at the truth, so he is actually improving the youth of the city by making their souls better. In a way he is preparing them in a way that the state cannot or does not see important. He explains that the reason he is being slandered against is because of a certain kind of wisdom. The kind of wisdom he is speaking of is perhaps human wisdom but he says ” [He] certainly [does] not possess it, and whoever says [that he does] is lying and speaks to slander [him].” (Apology, 20 d-e, pg. 41). He calls upon the god at Delphi as a witness to the existence and the nature of wisdom. Chairephon, a friend from his youth, went to Delphi and asked the oracle if there was any man wiser than Socrates. The answer given was no – there was no man wiser.

Socrates attempts to solve the problem by going “to one of those reputed wise, thinking that there, if anywhere, [he] could refute the oracle and say to it: “this man is wiser than I, but you said I was wise” (Apology, 21 b -c, pg. 42). Therefore, Socrates tries to search for someone wiser than himself. He begins with an examination of a politician and concludes that “he appeared to be wise, in fact, he was not” The reason Socrates gives is that the politician “thinks he knows something which he does not know, whereas I [Socrates] am quite conscious of my ignorance” (Apology, 21 d, pg. 42). He then questions a poet but realizes that he has the same advantage over them as he had over the politicians (Apology, 22 c, pg. 43). Poets, after all, are not truly wise because they depend on inborn emotions or inspiration for what they say. He continues on to an examination of a craftsman. Socrates found that the wisdom possessed by the craftsman was overshadowed for “these professional experts seemed to share the same failing which I had noticed in the poets; I mean that on the strength of their technical proficiency they claimed a perfect understanding of every other subject” (Apology, 22 d-e, pg. 43). Therefore, human wisdom has to do with the most pursuits and with Socrates’ recognition of his lack of knowledge about them.

It is evident throughout the Apology, that Socrates believed his divine mission was ordered by god and that he was to live the life of a philosopher – examining himself and others. Socrates states: “God has assigned me to this city, as if to a large thoroughbred horse which because of its great size in inclined to be lazy and needs the stimulation of some stinging fly” (Apology, 30 e, pg. 54). He also believes, then, that god has chosen him to serve such a function. In other words, he is there to persuade and reproach the citizens of Athens, to get them to care about their virtue instead of their wealth.

In the face of death, Socrates states that he does not fear death, for “to be afraid of death is only another form of thinking that one is wise when one is not; it is to think that one knows what one does not know” (Apology, 29 a, pg. 52). He maintains his position by stating that “[he] owes a greater obedience to god” and “shall never stop practicing philosophy” (Apology, 29 d, pg. 53). Socrates does propose the alternative of exile to the death penalty demanded by the prosecution. However, he states that no matter what city he is exiled to the young will listen to him speak. His reasoning is as follows, “if I say that this would be disobedience to God, and that is why I cannot mind my own business’, you will not believe me- you’ll think I’m pulling your leg.” (Apology, 37 e – 38 a). However, they will believe him even less if he were to say that it is the greatest good for a man to discuss virtue every day… for the unexamined life is not worth living (Apology, 38 a, pg. 63). Clearly, Socrates believes that by leading an unexamined life, by submitting oneself to elenctic examination ever day, one can avoid hubris (ignorance) and the vice it leads to and prepare oneself to be as good as possible (Apology, 39 d, pg. 65).

Socrates believes that as an Athenian, a citizen of the greatest city with the greatest reputation for both wisdom and power, they should be ashamed of their eagerness to posses as much wealth, reputation and honors as possible where as they do not care for nor give thought to wisdom or truth, or the best possible state of their souls (Apology, 29 d- e, pg. 53). Socrates, then, suggests that virtues are the greatest and most important things and that without them nothing else is equally as good. Therefore, “wealth does not bring goodness (or virtue), but goodness (or virtue) brings wealth and every other blessing, both to the individual and to the state” (Apology, 30 b, pg. 53).

The following passage is found in Plato’s Crito, in which Socrates is in prison awaiting death. Crito, a friend of Socrates, strives to persuade him to escape. However, Socrates, through the use of a personification of Athens’ laws, explains why it would be wrong for him to do so.

And if it leads you out to war, to be wounded or killed, you must comply, and it is just that this should be so- you must not give way or abandon your position. Both in war and in the lawcourts and everywhere else you must do whatever you city and your country commands, or else persuade it that justice is on your side (Crito 51b-c, pg. 87).

Crito’s reasons why Socrates should give his consent to escape can be divided in four arguments. However, it is important to examine only one. If Socrates dies by way of the death penalty, Crito will acquire a dishonourable reputation. Crito claims that

a great many people who do not know [Socrates] or [himself] very well will think that I let you down, saying that I could have saved you if I had been willing to spend the money; and what could be more shameful than to get a name for thinking more of money than of you friends (Crito, 44 b-c, pg. 78)?

Crito believes that the majority will not believe that it was Socrates himself who refuted to escape when he was eager to carry out the plan. Socrates responds that they should not care what the majority will think. Crito refutes this by claiming that they must pay attention to majority opinion, for Socrates’ present situation makes it clear that the majority can inflict not the least but pretty well the greatest evils if one is slandered among them (Crito, 44 d, pg. 78).

Socrates uses the analogy of a man training to explain to Crito that the opinions of the majority are irrelevant. Because they are not virtuous or do not posses the wisdom they think they do Socrates does not give validation to the opinion of the majority, who compose the citizens of Athens. “[Crito], what we ought to worry about is not so much what people in general will say about us but what the expert in justice and injustice says, the single authority and with him the truth itself” (Crito, 48 a, pg. 83). Just like the man training who should only take the advice of experts.

Socrates already established in the Apology that those of the majority truly do not posses wisdom and virtue. Therefore Socrates responds to Crito’s argument for a planned escape by stating that “as for the considerations you raise about expense and reputation and bringing up children… these are the concerns of the ordinary public, who think nothing of putting people to death, and would bring them back to life if they could, with equal indifference to reason” (Crito, 48 c, pg. 83). Socrates is clearly making reference to the majority here who make up the citizens of Athens. Those who are without the capabilities of seeking wisdom and knowledge.

The personified laws make the case that Socrates is morally bound to accept the finding of the court because he has agreed in advance to abide by the law which declares the court decisions to be binding. If he is aggrieved by the personal injustice of the outcome, let him reflect that he has been wronged by men and not by the law. If a man agrees to abide by the law declaring court decisions binding, then he must not do wrong through disobedience. Therefore Socrates will not be disobedient towards the laws of Athens by escaping. Instead he has chosen to await death for, “since God leads the way” (Crito, 54 e, pg. 92). He lived and died to destroy the country with a system he did not believe in.

Alas, Socrates quickly became the victim of the wealthy elites in Athenian society, who did not want their hold on the power and minds of the rest of society to be tampered with. It cannot be denied that Socrates suffered a great injustice by being found guilty and by being put on trial in the first place. The true substance of the trial was never a criminal matter nor a strain on democracy, but a challenge to an oppressive and oligarchical ruling class. Socrates became an symbol of true wisdom and knowledge, a symbol that needed to be disposed of for the elites to remain the power-holders in society. This was the essence of Socrates’ critique of Athenian democracy, that the wealthy who did not posses wisdom were incapable of ruling the city. His death being the perfect example.

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