Dēmos · Classical Athenian Democracy · a Stoa Publication
Josiah Ober, edition of July 31, 2003
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Thus by the end of the Republic it is only by abandoning politics and history—the project of working to achieve justice in a real polis—that Plato manages to solve the challenge posed by Socrates’ ethical demand that a true philosopher must “play the gadfly” with the lazy horse of his fellow citizens. Apparently, neither Plato nor any other philosopher-Athenian owes anything substantial to real-world Athens and thus he is in no way duty-bound to seek the improvement of the polis or its residents. To the extent that the reader (ancient or modern) is dismayed by Plato’s willingness to sunder philosophy from history and politics, to separate private self-improvement from public responsibility for the general welfare, he or she must regret the invalidation of the contract urged by the Laws in the Crito. With the rejection of the contract that the historical Socrates had willingly died to uphold, the Platonic philosophical project gains the capacity to change its entire nature, and some of us may feel that the change will not be for the better. In light of these regrets, we might ask: is here something missing from the Republic’s argument for tossing the contract aside?
What seems notoriously left out of the contract that the Laws of the Crito press upon Socrates is the positive benefit he had received from the freedom of the democratic polis and its unprecedented tolerance (even celebration) of diversity among its citizens. Socrates of the Apology and Crito alludes to this only obliquely, by suggesting that he would not have much success practicing his philosophy on the relatively “well governed” Megarians or Thebans (Crito 53b-c, cf. Apol. 37c-d). The historical Socrates had been regarded by many of his fellow citizens as a loudmouth, know-it-all, and potential troublemaker for at least twenty-five years before the trial of
Plot on a Map
In conclusion, I think Plato’s implicit argument that Athens inevitably killed Socrates—and that Athens was inevitably hostile to the practice of philosophy—was wrong. Plato’s attempted refutation of the original Socratic “ethics of social criticism,” on the grounds that philosophers had neither the capacity nor the duty to do public good, may have authorized Plato to leave the walled city and withdraw to his Academy. But it is worth remembering that the Academy was still within Athenian territory; and that Plato himself never chose to live for long in any polis other than Athens.
The figure of Socrates continued to haunt the Platonic Academy, as he continues to haunt the modern Academy today—like Plato, we (teachers and students alike) may find that the challenge of being both loyal citizens of our country and severe critics of its tendencies to self-satisfied complacency and self-serving injustice are overwhelming—and we may seek to find excuses to give up criticizing or to give up being citizens. But, like Plato, when modern day Academics are tempted to give up either commitment—to abandon social criticism or citizenship—we are stung anew by the example of the gadfly who died in
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