The Philosopher’s Crimes

The single most indispensable explanation of what a philosopher is comes in the context of the most famous trial in legal history. Socrates, who in Plato’s presentation of him was and remains the definitive philosopher, the embodied essence of the philosophic life, was tried, convicted, and executed on two charges: impiety and corrupting the youth. The philosopher is thus, by definition and essential nature, a man susceptible to being judged, by the society in which he lives — and as Socrates’ case demonstrates, that includes even the most civilized society on Earth — as dangerously irreverent toward the local deities, and as a threat to the stability of society due to his ability to influence others.

Impiety, of course, carries different concrete implications depending on which beliefs and presuppositions have the force of unquestionable truth and compulsory faith in any given community. Nevertheless, it is obvious to all but the most pedantically self-deluded among us — by which I mean primarily university professors, public school curriculum designers, and those popular intellectuals who promote themselves as defenders of enlightenment and atheism — that there is no society which is not established on a foundation of various certitudes and bromides which few if any of the faithful understand at all, but which are merely repeated endlessly until they assume the psycho-social power of proven realities in men’s souls, much like the hypnopaedic moral platitudes drilled into the sleeping minds of the young in Brave New World. Such pieties, whether scriptural and religious or secular-scientific and quasi-religious, are effective as social stabilizers — which is to say as emotional protectors of the current ruling establishment — only to the extent that they are more or less universally absorbed into the souls of the many as unquestioned, and indeed unquestionable, truths.

The philosopher, however, is precisely the person who insists that no received beliefs are beyond question, but rather that such questioning, and especially the willingness to doubt and examine one’s learned opinions and widely-held certitudes, in the sense of reassessing them on the basis of dispassionate reason, is not only of the utmost importance in the process of spiritual development (maturation and actualization), but is the first indispensable step in the highest and most essential activity of the human soul. Thus impiety, in the ordinary (i.e., political) sense, is not merely a risk of the philosophic pursuit, but an inevitability

Furthermore, one engaged in this essential philosophic activity will sometimes make an impression, intentionally or otherwise, on the minds of others who have not yet found their way to the search for wisdom, but who are endowed with certain natural gifts and have, for whatever private reasons, become disaffected with some of the norms or commonly accepted notions around them. To the extent that this occurs, the impression made will naturally tend to lead these others to start doubting their own received certitudes, or asking some socially forbidden or discouraged questions for themselves, thereby causing small fissures in the solid ground of uniform social certainty upon which any given political establishment rests, in addition to turning these talented young people away from their expected role as useful contributors to the status quo. From the point of view of the stability-dependent establishment, then — any such establishment — these individuals must be regarded as having been corrupted, i.e., drawn away from the social function they were raised and intended to perform. Therefore, the philosophic examiners whose behavior or words gave these young people a window to alternative ideas, and a glimpse of paths that stray from the well-paved roads of social expectation, will necessarily be regarded, from the point of view of the societal establishment, as corrupters.

The deepest wisdom to be learned from Plato’s Apology is not that a great man may be subject to unjust accusations by a society which does not understand his true value. Rather, it is that the philosopher will, in fact or in principle, always and everywhere be susceptible to charges of impiety and corruption of youth, and that these charges will always be true. The Apology is not the story of a man falsely accused. It is the story of a man who is guilty as charged — and whose crimes, understood from beyond the legal and moral norms of society, are (1) daring to live the highest human life without fear of retribution by the presiding gods or their human representatives, and (2) being noticed doing so by impressionable young people open to investigating alternative ways of thinking. The first crime puts him directly at odds with the aims and unquestionable certainties of his society as a whole. The second makes him a threat to the establishment’s stability in the most insidious way, namely as an influence away from blind acceptance of norms and indoctrinated certainties in the minds of thoughtful young people.

Thus, the challenge of the philosophic life, implying the profoundest question anyone tempted by this strange way of being must ask himself, is to face the cold, hard, truth that this is not the life for one with a weakness for needing acceptance or approbation. It is not the life for one who hopes to “make a difference” or “show them all.” It is the life for one prepared to accept that his justice, which is to say the only prospective judgment he must allow to govern his soul, will come from judges not of his time and place, and that the laws those judges will apply to his case are those of a city he will never see on this Earth, one which in fact his or any other earthly city would regard as a great enemy.

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