How to Handle This Moment

At the end of the Peloponnesian War, in 404 B.C., Sparta appointed a ruling committee in Athens, the group which came to be known as the Thirty Tyrants. At the time, Socrates, a private man but a figure of considerable repute and controversy, was sixty-five years old. His most famous student prior to that time, the divisive iconoclast Alcibiades, had already been assassinated in exile. His most illustrious student of all, Plato, was only twenty-four years old and still very much a learner. Socrates knew some of the Thirty Tyrants personally, and two of them (Critias and Charmides) were Plato’s relatives.

Five years later, at his trial for impiety and corruption of youth, Socrates recounts an episode from the year of the Thirty Tyrants’ rule, in which he, along with several other men, were ordered to apprehend and return with an Athenian who was to be punished for disloyalty to the tyrants. The aim, typical of clever despots, was to smear as many Athenians as possible with some culpability, by forcing them to carry out the rulers’ dirty work. Socrates tells his judges that while the other men bowed to this unjust order, his own response was simply to go home, rather than obey and sully himself. As fate would have it, and as Socrates notes matter-of-factly at his trial, the Thirty were ousted from power before they could capture and kill Socrates for this disobedience, though there is every reason to think they would indeed have done so had they remained in power.

This episode is highly revealing and instructive regarding the proper attitude of a good man living in a time of tyranny and civil decay. Socrates was a private man by choice, because public (i.e., political) life would be futile and unprofitably dangerous for a philosophic soul in a time of irrationality, a profoundly just man in a time of profound injustice, a teacher in a time of indoctrination and conformist crowd-thinking. For such a man, the only reasonable option for social existence is private conversation with interlocutors of one’s preference, circumspection regarding the nature of one’s given audience, and irony towards the general tenor of the day. And in those situations, which tend to arise in unfree conditions, even for the most private of men, in which one’s principles and spiritual liberty are directly challenged by authority in ways that would demand submission to irrationality — the kind of situations in which a less self-knowing man might be prodded into open and destructive rebellion — the Socratic type of man, in possession of the specifically philosophic sort of courage and moderation, simply, quietly walks away from the unjust duty. He abstains, he refuses to submit, but without unnecessary fanfare or any desire for “going out in a blaze of glory.” 

Likewise, in the wake of his trial itself, five years after this sublime act of unobtrusive defiance against the Thirty Tyrants, Socrates uses his defense speech primarily to gently mock his jurors, and then to inform them, with supreme unperturbedness, that whether his death by execution at their hands will turn out to be a punishment or a great good remains to be seen. In other words, he tells the jury they will have no say in his actual fate, whatever they choose to do with his physical existence. Later, when offered a chance to escape from prison, he rejects it, largely on the grounds that such flight and its implied desperate clinging to bodily survival would be unworthy of a man for whom a philosophically virtuous soul is the only good ultimately worth preserving. And in the end, he drinks his hemlock in one shot, like a man enjoying a final quaff before closing time, and berates his friends for disturbing his peace with their noisy weeping.

Socrates is a model for all times, but perhaps never more than for a time such as this. He too was living through a great civilization’s descent. He too was a victim of the brutal injustice at the heart of democracy and demagoguery untethered from principles of true freedom and virtuous rationality. He too was faced with the unjust demands of a society drifting at random, averse to moderation, and ruled by the vested interests of small men. He too, above all, was living in daily defiance of a world that was increasingly sacrificing the good to the pleasant, ideas to mantras, and thoughtful conversation to the emotions of crowds. His stand, a very simple one, was to refuse to participate in the dissipation — to continue to seek the good through reason, to attract talented young men away from the life devoted to political or material success, and to insist, to himself first, and to anyone who would listen, including the jury about to convict him of the crime of thinking freely, that “the unexamined life is not worth living for a man.”

Take his lesson, his model, to heart.

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