The Unexamined Life Today

The challenge in teaching Plato’s Apology used to be overcoming the students’ incredulity and incomprehension faced with the historical fact of a supposedly democratic society rejecting the philosophic activity so stridently as to put a man’s freedom and his very life on trial, merely for asking questions that the political establishment did not like. “How unjust and intolerant the Athenian people must have been!” previous generations of students would think, with an air of superiority.

Today, the tables have been turned, and the mainstream view among university students throughout the advanced world (and of course their professors) is that Socrates’ activity — asking awkward questions about the presiding pieties, seemingly disdainful of the social necessity of ideological conformity, and ignorant of the mandatory democratic acceptance of the relativity of values and truth — is not only capable of being criticized, but should in fact be silenced and punished, and the philosopher in the Socratic sense banished from the arena of morally acceptable conversation altogether, as a purveyor of insensitivity, intolerance, and hate speech.

Students used to have trouble understanding how Socrates’ accusers, as embodied in the Apology by Meletus, could be taken so seriously in a democratic society. Now they are entirely, by indoctrinated instinct, on Meletus’ side, and Socrates is the one who must — but by definition cannot — defend his life and activities. Never before today has the young, wealthy, educated class of the democratic world fallen so decisively and uniformly on the side of protecting its received beliefs against the vaguest scent of impiety. The young Greek men whom Socrates was accused of corrupting, those many well-heeled youths who were excited by his unanswerable questions and inspired by his intransigent but eminently rational refusal to sacrifice the examined life to any other supposed good, have all but vanished. Their modern counterparts have been absorbed, without resistance, into the submissive world of absolute certainty which their elders — political schemers, billionaire self-servers, popular propagandists, and above all the academic stinging drones driven by equal measures of envy, self-loathing, and power lust — have designed for them, to suffocate those natural self-doubts and sparks of genuine curiosity that once gave the best young people their first hints of a light from beyond the moral and intellectual cave of the present.

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