I have just finished Socrates’ Defence, an account of the infamous trial against the Greek philosopher, unjustly accused of morally corrupting the young in Athens and of impiety. The text was written by none other than Plato, Socrates’ loyal pupil and witness at the trial that ultimately sentenced his teacher to death by drinking poison. The book is a masterclass in oratory and argumentation, as well as a powerful reflection on the nature of wisdom, pride and justice.
It is the second time I read this text, but actually the first I find it so particularly depressing. Poor old Socrates! -I thought as I closed the book- What would the father of Western Philosophy think about the state of our human interactions in this XXI century? How would he feel about humanity’s devotion to gossip and scandal and our disregard of intellectual matters and intolerance to disagreement? It sometimes feels as if we were stuck in the same place and the same times that saw Socrates drink lethal hemlock in front of a crowd of jurymen and citizens.
So, what was Athens’ problem with Socrates? He was a humble man with little money and no interest in public office and his greatest satisfactions in life derived from teaching and engaging in open debate with whomever was up to the challenge. The problem with him was that he stood out from the crowd, and he stood out for reasons particularly dreaded by the authorities and some other high profile figures in Athens. First, Socrates encouraged his students to pursue truth by questioning, as opposed as to resigning themselves to believing everything they were told. Second, and despite being widely regarded as a wise philosopher himself, Socrates constantly mocked the idea of human superior wisdom: “I only know that I know nothing,” he used to say. Third, as a way of proving the latter point, Socrates went around Athens, followed by a crowd of acolytes, questioning people’s wisdom, especially those particularly fond of their own reputation as “illuminated men.” During these public exchanges, Socrates invariably ridiculed his interlocutors, who always failed to demonstrate their treasured “superiority.” Clearly, this practice earned Socrates many enemies throughout his life, among them some powerful people, who would eventually bring him to trial and sentence him to death.
In addition to all of the above, Socrates was also openly adverse to gossiping. The act of gossiping, pretty much represented all the things the philosopher despised. In a well known exchange with a fellow Athenian who had approached Socrates to share some gossip with him, the philosopher interjected: “Before you tell me anything, I need to ask you three questions; if you answer no to any of them, then I’m not interested in hearing your news: 1. Are you sure the story you’re about to tell me is absolutely true?; 2. Is it any good for me or anyone else to know this story?; and 3. Is this news useful in any way?”
What a nuisance Socrates must have been to politicians, judges and everyone else in positions of power in ancient Athens! Even today, anywhere across the western world, he would have been considered a pain. He wasn’t interested in gossip but in intelligent debate, he cross-examined everything he was told and completely opposed the veneration of selective groups of humans as superior beings. Socrates was basically every politician’s nightmare! An inspiration of how we, citizens of this modern world, should be: questioners, protesters and challengers. Democracy, after all -and even though we keep on failing to admit it- is not just some rhetorical word that politicians use to persuade us; a politician’s concern. Democracy is in fact, everyone’s responsibility, a duty that each single citizen should fulfil. The job is simply to be a nuisance; never an agent of violence, not even a rebel. The job is simply to be a bit more like Socrates: less prone to gossip and to destructive criticism, more prone to debate and tolerant disagreement; always humble and willing to laugh; less banal and more intellectual.