Dēmos · Classical Athenian Democracy · a Stoa Publication
Josiah Ober, edition of July 31, 2003
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This article was originally written for the online discussion series “Athenian Law in its Democratic Context,” organized by Adriaan Lanni and sponsored by Harvard University’s Center for Hellenic Studies.
Plot on a Map
Socrates of Athens is an enduring presence in the western imagination, in part because he presents us with a mass of contradictions: Most eloquent of men, yet he never wrote a word; ugliest yet most profoundly attractive; ignorant yet wise; wrongfully convicted, yet unwilling to avoid his unjust execution. Behind these conundrums is a contradiction less often explored: Socrates is at once the most Athenian, most “local,” citizenly, patriotic, and other-regarding of philosophers—and yet the most cosmopolitan, critical, and self-regarding of Athenians. Exploring that contradiction, between “Socrates the loyal Athenian citizen” and “Socrates the philosophical critic of Athenian society,” will help to situate Plato’s Socrates in an Athenian legal and historical context; it allows us to reunite Socrates the literary character and Athens the democratic city that tried and executed him. And this will in turn go a ways in helping us to understand Plato’s presentation of the strange legal and ethical drama of “the last days of Socrates”—and thus Socrates’ remarkable impact on subsequent generations, in antiquity and modernity alike.
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