Reflections On Not Being One of Them
It is standard among today’s professoriate to teach Plato’s Apology with perplexity or mock-sophistication, agonizing over efforts to make sense of the charges against Socrates, seeking to persuade the students (and themselves) that those charges as recorded — impiety and corruption of youth — were “trumped up,” or perhaps merely a cover story for more immediate personal or political motives. For Athens was a democracy, you see, and it is not quite conceivable that a democratic society would condemn a man simply for casting doubt upon the city’s basic truths, or merely for attracting a few talented young citizens to ask hard questions about the standard opinions and common life goals of the community.
Alternatively, the professors qualify the whole situation by noting, with all the presumptuousness of the politically illiterate, that classical Athens was not an advanced democracy, such as we have today, but merely a nascent and tentative one, thus explaining its unenlightened impulses against “dissenting views” or “alternative lifestyles” as a remnant of certain undemocratic attitudes within the ruling class.
The professors who find Socrates’ condemnation by a democratic court so bemusing or implausible at face value, or merely indicative of how greatly modernity has improved democracy, are revealing something about themselves, namely that they have no conception of what philosophy is, what education should be, what a teacher was, or what it means to live as a thinking soul in a political community — any political community. For this last point is the true, harsh but ennobling lesson of the Apology. There is hardly a day when I am not acutely aware of the precariousness of my practical existence, precisely because I regularly and unavoidably cast doubt upon my society’s basic truths, and encourage talented young people to ask hard questions about the standard opinions and common life goals with which they have been indoctrinated by their community. I sometimes ask myself, with sincere concern, whether I have enough of the old Socratic courage and intransigence in the face of public disapproval, prospective or real, to live this sort of life in its fullest form to the bitter end, or whether instead I will gradually wither into comfortable compromise under the constant stress of “not being one of them.”
Freedom, the only kind that ultimately matters, and the only kind that is within our practical reach any longer, is separating yourself as much as possible from everything that depends on other people’s judgments, other people’s decisions, or other people’s actions. Insofar as you are honestly doing your best, and trying to be the best person you can, other people’s opinions, rules, or condemnations, however severely they may come down upon you, ought to have no effect on anything. For it is not the results that determine what you are; these are always somewhat or entirely beyond your personal control. In that respect, the results — the practical outcomes — are not you at all. You are the thing that resides above the material manifestations, and hence lies essentially independent of the to and fro of external forces that constitutes the world of other people. Those waves, which will have their way with you in a hundred ways, a few of them pleasant, most of them painful, all exist as in a world below you, as though you were watching your own fate unfold. And yet to the extent that your soul is outside the fateful process, as one must be to observe it, to that extent you are impassive. This is your freedom.
When the species has proven fatally disappointing and irredeemable, we may find consolation, paradoxically, in those rarest of the rare within our experience whose exceptional natures represent the cause of our folly in overestimating what the species as a whole might have been. For we all, perhaps, have a weakness for imagining, or rather hoping, that mankind has within it the capacity to be what the best of men have been, or are. It does not. The best men are not a representative sample of the race, an ideal, or even an indication of potential. They are merely the outliers who do not match the standard model. They are random mutations, if you will, and they cannot be replicated or learned. They just are. What can be replicated or learned, unfortunately, will always and by definition be the standard issue: improvable at times almost to the point of suggesting some essential kinship between the outliers and the species as a whole (see classical Greece), but more often just a burden to themselves, and far more likely to despise and destroy the “good man” than to admire or emulate him — let alone to understand him. The fact that they pretend to understanding, sometimes even to the point of building temples and schools in honor of the outliers, merely reveals, in the end, humanity’s tendency to aggrandize and overestimate itself. For where is the church that understands what Moses and Jesus were, or the university that can teach its students how to live as Plato and Shakespeare did?