Socratic Example

The figure of Socrates, the ancient Athenian philosopher who was unjustly executed, became a fixation in the mind of the young Plato who, it might be said, never got over the lesson he learned from his mentor. Socrates was a citizen of the Athenian democracy — through he preferred to distance himself from political life and focus, rather, on tending his soul in dialogue with the brightest and best young men around him. He could be found almost any day at the Piraeus deep in discussion with those young men about the nature of justice, wisdom, and courage. The young Plato was among those men.

During the height of the Peloponnesian War the Athenian democracy was dissolved and violently replaced by an oligarchy, the rule of fifty-one men, headed by thirty tyrants, who sought to determine the course of the war and dictate the political policies of the day. That oligarchic government determined to involve Socrates in their violence toward those who sympathized with the democratic government they had overthrown. Socrates refused and the oligarchy was itself overthrown not long after by the democratic government. The democrats then — seemingly resenting the fact that Socrates had shown himself to be above political machinations — decided to bring bogus charges against the man and tried him for “impiety and corrupting the young.”

The evidence against Socrates was thin at best — resting as it did on the facts that he insisted that a man couldn’t engage in politics and retain his integrity and that one or two of the corrupt men who had participated in the abortive experiment in oligarchy had been known to consort with Socrates. In any event he was tried and found guilty. He was given his choice of punishment and many thought he would simply exile himself from the city-state and they would be done with him. But he chose to drink hemlock which would end his life.

In the days leading up to his execution his friends, several of whom were wealthy and influential, sought to help him escape. But Socrates refused and in the end drank the cup and died quietly among his closest and dearest friends. In defending his actions he insisted that as a citizen of Athens he was bound by their laws — despite the fact that he knew in his case the laws were not justly interpreted: he was convicted on bogus charges by a jury of his peers who were resentful of the fact that he seemed aloof and somehow superior to them. In any event, his friends’ arguments were dismissed by Socrates and his determination to comply with the court’s decision is often used as an example of the necessity to obey laws despite the fact that those laws are unjust.

But this misses the point. which was that Socrates saw his membership in the political body as making demands upon him in the form of duties that he, who had enjoyed the privileges of citizenship all his life, was bound to obey — including the decision of the court. At his trial he had told the jury that if they insisted that he stop “teaching” as a condition of his being let off he would ignore the condition and continue to converse with young men (which he did not regard as teaching). He had no argument with the courts or with the law as such. His argument was against the misinterpretation of those laws and the actions of the court, the people who thought they were correctly applying the laws. But his quarrel with his accusers was not, in his view, sufficient to make him break the laws of his chosen home.

How different was this man from the president-elect we are about to see sworn into the highest office of this land! The man who insisted that if he lost the election he would raise Hell and refuse to acknowledge his opponent’s legitimacy. He would play the political game, but only if he was allowed to make the rules.

But, sadly, many of the more than 66 million voters who voted against him and who now regret the ascension into that high office of a man who is clearly unfit also want to refuse to acknowledge his legitimacy. There are tee shirts available that say “Trump is not my president.” But he is. We played the game and with the example of Socrates in front of us (and not the example of Donald Trump) we are bound by the rules of that game and must acknowledge his legitimacy, despite the fact that he lost the popular vote and almost certainly cheated in the process. Our system is designed to make the Electoral College the final court of appeal in the election of a president and, like it or not, the College duly cast their votes for a man many of us regard as the antithesis of what a president of this country should be. We need not embrace the man; but we must acknowledge him. My only hope is that he is not long in that office.

I am aware, of course, that there are serious questions about the legitimacy of the election, including the probable role of Russia in determining who our president would be, but until those questions have been answered (if indeed they are ever allowed to be answered) we must accept the fact that Donald Trump is the president of this democracy, until further notice. Bitter though the taste might be, we must bite the bullet. It is preferable, I would hope, to having to drink Hemlock!



6 thoughts on “Socratic Example

  1. nice post, hugh; you do a great job at helping us stay balanced with integrity intact.

    when a ‘bully’ punched my buttons until i reacted with angry words /retort, it bothered me a lot how i’d given my power over to that person… a friend, months later when i wondered why Life put that person in my path, she said, ‘maybe it’s so you could learn how to stand up to a bully…’

    so perhaps this election and its results have taught many how to find a voice and speak up — but now we need lessons like yours to remember to have dignity and integrity as well..

  2. On logical grounds, and given the Socratic example you provide, one finds it difficult to disagree with your line of reasoning. We have accepted the legitimacy of the system, so we must accept the legitimacy of its outcomes. To a point, a I agree. I have often said that voting doesn’t guarantee a desirable outcome, but it does give one a right to complain that non-voters do not rightly share. It gets more complicated, however, when the legitimacy of the political system itself is called into question.

    To a great extent, many who wear the “Not My President” T-shirts are expressing dissent and disagreement with an outcome they dislike. This is not new in our country. They do not deny the fact of the looming Trump presidency; they simply decry it. Beyond this for many, a refusal to grant legitimacy to the person of the president is also a refusal to accept the legitimacy of the system itself. Not its reality, it’s legitimacy — it’s claim upon our moral or ethical submission to its authority.

    The extent of this refusal to accept the idea that Trump is a legitimate president only is increased by:
    (1) The less-than-admirable personal history and obvious character of the President-Elect himself.
    (2) The conduct of Trump’s campaign and transition: bigotry, misogyny, authoritarianism, etc.
    (3) Trump’s contemptuous disregard of the legitimacy of President Obama (birtherism), the laws (Logan Act) and traditions (full financial disclosure and divestment) upon which our system is grounded.
    (4) The character and quality of his nominees to the Cabinet and his appointees to positions close to him range from completely disappointing to utterly frightening.

    The increasing challenge to the legitimacy of the political system itself is spurred, among other things, by:
    (1) The 40-year-long propaganda effort by the Republicans to undermine the very idea that government can function to promote the public good.
    (2) The successful, parallel effort to defund and dismantle public programs nationwide while running up government debt to make the financing of such programs more difficult — i.e., the Reagan Strategy.
    (3) The role of effectively unlimited money in our campaigns — for both major parties.
    (4) The craven political gerrymandering and relatively effective voter-suppression policies of state-level Republicans around the nation, especially in key battleground states.
    (5) The conduct of the Democratic National Committee with respect to the candidacy of Senator Sanders (neither shocking nor admirable).
    (6) The unprofessional and unethical involvement of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the recent election,
    (7) The involvement of a hostile foreign power in our recent presidential election — whatever it’s consequences.
    (8) The Electoral College itself, which seems increasingly outdated and dysfunctional, especially given it’s recent failure to accomplish one of it’s central goals, i.e., to prevent a person like Donald Trump from becoming President of the United States.
    (9) An increasingly polarized and decreasingly informative news media that both reflects and effects the increasing political ignorance and cultural factionalization of the citizenry.

    All of these elements combine to (1) make a Trump candidacy and presidency possible in the first place, and (2) undermine the legitimacy of both the President-Elect and the political system that led to his ascendancy.

    Socrates sacrificed his life to the principle that while the decisions of political leaders may flawed, the system of laws and governance itself must be respected. An excellent ideal, bot only insofar and only as long as the system of laws and governance themselves bear the allegiance of the citizens. The increasingly widespread attitude in this country — on various political and cultural fronts — is that we are forced to drink hemlock and accept a system that increasingly fails to serve the public good, however we choose to define it.

    This is the attitude that allowed Trump’s campaign to attract about 48-49% of the votes cast; it is also the attitude that leads the other 52-52% of voters to question and challenge the authority of both the President-Elect AND the political system that brought him to a position of eminence.

    It is a circumstance that neither fits logical arguments or examples easily nor calms one’s concerns about the future of our democracy. It is, nonetheless, a compelling and crucially important topic for discussion.

    Thank you for addressing it in the thoughtful manner that always characterizes your posts.

  3. Jerry, many thanks for the good comment. I do think we need to focus on this comment of yours: “The increasingly widespread attitude in this country — on various political and cultural fronts — is that we are forced to drink hemlock and accept a system that increasingly fails to serve the public good, however we choose to define it.” It is an “increasingly widespread attitude” and that may be the result of our inability to see beyond our immediate reactions, no? We have become so sunk in our own selves that we tend to lose sight of the broader canvass. I am not pointing fingers: this is true of myself as well. This is not to say that trump’s victory is consistent with the common good. On the contrary, it is fairly clear that it is not. But we wanted to play the game and we must now stick with the hand we have been dealt — which does not imply acquiescence, but rather a constant vigil to help preserve what remains of this democracy.

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