Professor Smith claims that the best introductory text to the study of Political Philosophy is Plato’s Apology. His introduction to this lecture is:
“Socrates is the founder of Political Philosophy because he engages in justifications of the good life as well as illustrating the vulnerability of the political philosopher in the state. When he is tried for impiety and the corruption of the youth of Athens–philosophy is put on trial. The work suggests a necessary and inevitable conflict between the freedom of the inquiring mind and the requirements of political life. Socrates is a central historical symbol for political resistance to political power. Some people try to defend Socrates on the grounds of freedom of speech but it is important to know that this is not the grounds on which he defended himself. He is rather defending the examined life, which for him alone is worth living. His quest is a quest for self-perfection, not an argument for free speech. He is quarreling with his accusers over who has the right to educate the citizen. This is a dialogue about education.”
We know there were probably many reasons why Socrates was convicted by a 500 man jury. Many were worried about the implications of Socratic “education” for religion and its power of uniting the relatively large community of Athens(ca 200,000 people). The poets like Aristophanes were concerned that Philosophy would replace Poetry as the mediator between religion and the people. The poets also promoted an image of the hero as a warrior inspired by the gods. Socrates was propagating the image of a new kind of hero and a new kind of life: a hero which uses the verbal weapon of elenchus and a form of life which is devoted to questioning everything including the status quo of the fragile democracy of Athens. Socrates was even questioning the Delphic oracles implied claim that he was the wisest man in Athens. Professor Smith also refers to a probable political bias of the jury. The war with Sparta had been lost in 404 BC and the thirty tyrants backed by Sparta began ruling. Amongst the tyrants were associates and pupils of Socrates, the most infamous of which was Alcibiades, the man responsible for the disastrous Sicilian expedition and the man who was later to defect to Sparta. Plato’s Symposium testifies to the close relation between Socrates and Alcibiades.
In lecture three Professor Smith points out a number of paradoxes generated by the case study of Socrates. The examined life, he argues appears to encourage citizens to examine the state of their own soul rather than the institutions and laws of the society. Are these activities compatible? The paradox seems inevitably to lead to tension, especially if one is, as Socrates was, placed in a position of civic responsibility and ordered to assist in the arrest of the Athenian generals who had left bodies of dead Athenian warriors in the sea. Socrates refused on the grounds that the circumstances were not conducive to the carrying out of this responsibility and in an act of civic defiance he refused the order from the 30 tyrants. This was obviously a result of a private examination of his own soul’s integrity. Socrates here appears to be asserting his individual rights in acts of civil disobedience. Professor Smith also points correctly to the Crito dialogue and the Socratic arguments there in favour of obeying the law and refusing invitations to escape an unjust verdict in a system that should know better. Smith suggests that there is a seeming contradiction in this position:
“What we are witnessing here is the clash of two irreconcilable moral codes. His reason frees him from the dangerous influence of the state. But his political life as a citizen requires that he respect the laws and the deepest beliefs and institutions of the society. Why does Socrates choose to stay and drink the hemlock. Why not escape to Crete?”
Professor Smith leaves this question hanging in the air but he was more careful than commentators normally are in his reporting of the Delphic oracle’s utterance in a consultation over who the wisest man in Athens was. He points out that the oracle answered the question with a question,namely, “Is there any man wiser than Socrates?”, practically inviting an investigation into the matter, especially given the Delphic imperative to “know thyself”. Another dialogue the Phaedo might provide more information relating to the putative contradiction Smith referred to above. Could the endgame of dying with dignity have been on Socrates’ mind in the conversation with Crito. Socrates had spent some time consulting his inner “sign” over this matter. socrates had showed us how to live. Was it now time to show us how to die?
The Socratic sign within suggests that we move forward to the role of the moral law within and Kant’s emphasis upon the goodwill of the individual. From this perspective, there is certainly no paradox or contradiction. The society is not yet ready to provide the conditions necessary for justice to reign universally, This Kant can clearly see. Even though one might wish to argue that it ought to be able to administer itself justly. This would seem to imply that acts of civil disobedience directed at the law and the deepest beliefs of the society should be avoided, the possible exception being a state of affairs in which the laws make leading an examined Socratic life difficult or impossible. Aristotle would also consent to the exception. He felt that states should not interfere with peoples choices: objecting to the Republic and its forcing Philosophers to force the citizens to lead a life in accordance with the idea of the common good.
Lecture 4 turns to a consideration of Plato’s dialogue without consideration of the question of the “problem of Socrates”, i.e. the problem of how we are to distinguish the historical Socrates from the literary figure which Plato sometimes uses to convey his post-Socratic theories. Professor Smith claims that:
“Every work of political philosophy is a response in one way or another to Plato’s Republic. It is important to approach this work with the right questions given that this Republic is ruled by Philosopher-kings. What is the Republic about? Justice? Moral Psychology? The right ordering of the human soul? The power of poetry and myth to shape souls and societies? Metaphysics? Education? It is about all of these things.”
Again there is an ancient oracular prophecy operating in the background of the consciousness of Plato the former poet, namely that cities will see no end to destruction and ruin until philosophers become kings or kings become philosophers.
Smith refers in this lecture to Popper’s work “The Open Society and its enemies” and the extraordinary claim that Plato was a fascist. He points out in defense of Popper that in Plato we do not find a separation of powers. The governmental structures are not separated from the civil powers of the judiciary, for example. But Smith defends Plato in an interesting discussion of Plato’s Academy and the fact that it was the model for the first University system:
“We are all heirs of Plato. The institutional and educational requirements of Plato’s Academy share many characteristics of universities today. In Plato’s Callipolis and in Yale today, men and women are selected at a relatively early age because of their capacities for leadership, courage, self-discipline, and responsibility. They leave their parents and sleep together, exercise together, study together. the best go on to further study. If Plato is a fascist then so are we.”
A passionate defense of the spirited examined life. Smith perhaps omits to mention the really academic heritage of the Academy which is related to what these students actually do in their lecture halls. They listen to lectures containing elenchus and various forms of argument. They acquire knowledge of the past for use in the present and future. They are exposed to metaphors and allegories and myths and the major thoughts of thinkers of the past about their present and their futures. They learn to exercise their critical powers and judgment about almost everything under the Platonic sun including Plato’s Republic.