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!



History Lessons

After Athens and Sparta led the Greeks in battle against the mammoth forces of Persia and won the battle of Marathon — where Herodotus estimates that they were outnumbered as much as 10 to 1, the Greeks formed the Delian league which exacted tribute from the various Greek City-States too help build Greek forces against possible future attacks. The funds were kept at Delos, home of the Delphic Oracle and a place sacred to the Greeks.

Eventually, Athens transferred the money to Athens and used it to help them build their navy and arm their forces (and the Parthenon), while assuming control of many of the City-Sates that were weaker than they. Indeed, the Athenians thought it only natural that the stronger should take control of the weaker. And, oddly enough, the rest of the Greeks seem to have adopted that view as well — even the weak ones! But eventually Sparta realized that the growing power of Athens was a direct threat to them and to those City-States that looked to them for protection, such as Corinth. Soon began the Peloponnesian War that lasted 27 years and ended with Sparta taking control of the country and occupying Athens. The war is chronicled by Thucydides who lived thorough it and who gave us what many regard as the first truly factual historical account of what was happening in the dark and distant past. It should be noted that Thucydides was intent to dismiss the poetical “fancies” of such people as Homer who didn’t tell is “like it was.” The new history was to be factual and the historian seeking above all else to be objective.

Well, it is a fascinating question whether a historian can be objective and many now think that all history is poetry — or fiction at the very least. But the lessons that Thucydides sought to teach the future he was convinced were lessons that could help us all understand the forces that operate on us all and assist us in dealing with an unknown future. He regarded history as cyclical, major trends repeating themselves while the personages and specific challenges changed with the times. What happened in Greece in the fifth century B.C.E. can teach us how to prepare for what is happening to us right now. The decision of the Athenians to send a majority of their troops to Sicily late in the war (resulting in 40,000 Athenian deaths) parallels almost exactly Hitler’s decision to attack Russia during the Second World War — with almost identical results. And George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq following the huge success of his father’s adventure in The Gulf War may be yet another parallel.

The key elements in this repetition are the greed and ambition of human beings coupled with their aggressive instincts — according to Thucydides. Those elements are still very much with us, as noted above. And it should also be noted also that toward the end of the Peloponnesian War Athens became arrogant and in its excessive pride took a step too far and brought about its own ruin. There are lessons here for us all.

In our eagerness to “make America great again,” we must recall the lessons that the fifth century historian sought to teach: pride and arrogance coupled with fear and our aggressive impulses often, if not always, lead to tragic consequences. I have noted in the past that the greatness of this country lies not in its military power — such things as increasing the already obscenely huge nuclear arsenal and a “defense” budget that dwarfs all others on this planet — but in its espousal of values such as honor, nobility, and generosity. These were values that the Athenians paid lip service to, but which were displaced in their frenzy to build their empire and amass land and wealth — which brought about their demise. We, too, have paid lip-service to values such as these while we play the game of power politics. And we have a leader recently elected whose avowed purpose is to disconnect with the rest of the civilized world, build walls, and increase our military strength in pursuit of what he regards as “greatness.”

Those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it, according to the philosopher Santayana. And Americans are notoriously ignorant not only of world history but of their own history as well. It is not a formula for success, and we would be wise to pause and reflect along the way toward “greatness” and ask repeatedly whether we really want to go where we seem to be headed. We must cling to such values as integrity, nobility, true heroism, sacrifice, and charity toward those who rely on us if we are to approach greatness, which does not wear armor but wears, rather, the cloak of generosity and selflessness.

Greek Wisdom

The Greek poet Aeschylus wrote a trilogy usually referred to as The “Oresteia.” It centers around the revenge death by Orestes of his mother who had killed his father Agamemnon after his return from Troy. Orestes is hounded by the Eumenides (the Furies) who represent the ancient concept of justice as “an eye for an eye.” In the third play, “The Eumenides,” Orestes flees to Athens where he seeks the protection of the goddess Athene. His advocate is Apollo who, at the urging of his Father Zeus, had urged Orestes to kill his mother, and her lover as well, because she had taken the life of a Greek hero.

Athene suggests to the Eumenides that rather than hound Orestes to madness or death he should be tried by a jury of twelve Athenian citizens. She will play the role of Judge and in case of a tie vote she will cast the deciding vote. After the two sides have presented their view of the matricide (during which Apollo presents the curious argument that the father is the true parent of the child; the mother merely carries the seed) the jury votes and their decision results in a tie which Athene breaks in Orestes’ favor. The message is clear: the new laws of Athens have replaced the barbaric laws of justice, represented by the Eumenides, and Athens herself now stands before the world as representative of civilization itself, defender of true justice. As Athene says in her summing-up:

“. . .In this place shall the awe of the citizens and their inborn dread restrain injustice, both by day and night alike, so long as the citizens themselves do not pervert the laws by means of evil influxes; for by polluting clear water with mud you will never find good drinking.

“Neither Anarchy nor tyranny shall the citizen defend and respect, if they follow my council; and they shall not cast out altogether from the city what is to be feared.

“For who among the mortals that fears nothing is just?

“Such is the object of awe that you must justly dread, and so you shall have a bulwark of the land and a protector of the city such as none of human kind possess…”

The Athenians are urged to take pride in their city which stands now as a beacon of justice in a barbarian world where once the Eumenides had reined supreme — higher even than the gods themselves. The Eumenides themselves are argued into submission after taking exception to the decision of the jury and Athene herself by the promise of becoming themselves helpful guardians of the city with a place of honor. They are appeased and they say near the end of the play:

“This is my prayer: Civil War fattening on men’s ruin shall not thunder in our city. Let not the dry dust that drinks the black blood of citizens through passion for revenge and bloodshed for bloodshed be given our state to prey upon.

“Let them render grace for grace. Let love be their common will. . .”

Two things strike the reader at once: love is to replace hate and the laws replace brutal justice, laws that properly speaking demand our respect and even our fear. They define the state and they create a civilized world apart from the world of those who cry for blood.

I have thought recently how different Athene’s world is from ours of late. We have selected as president of this country a man who is well known to bend and at times to break the laws, believing himself to be above the laws and incapable of error. A man who faces a trial for serial rape of a thirteen-year-old girl. His loud and obnoxious followers wave their weapons of death high and shout hateful epithets; they thirst for “black blood of citizens through passion for revenge.”

We express our surprise, for some reason, as the man now proceeds to select like-minded men and women to surround himself with as president during the coming years, small-minded men and women who, like him, live in a small world filled with hatred and suspicion — even paranoia. Hatred seems to have displaced love as the central emotion in this new world which appears to be splitting into two halves; fear is directed toward the unpredictable behavior of this man and his cohorts rather than to the laws and the Constitution of the land that has heretofore defined this civilization as in many ways superior to those that surround it. Gone is even the faintest echo,”let them render grace for grace. Let love be their common will.” How many of those who voted this man in are now beginning to have second-thoughts?

Ours is indeed a Brave New World. The Eumenides would be delighted.


When Oedipus killed his father and married his mother, the Greeks witnessing the event on the stage as depicted by Sophocles knew that there would be retribution. The act of marrying his mother is, as we would say, “unnatural.” In the Greek view it was a violation of what they called “Moira.” Since Oedipus was a great king, his actions resulted in cosmic imbalance (that’s right, cosmic imbalance). Things had to be set right. So while the folks sitting in the theater were horrified by what Oedipus did, they were even more concerned about how he would be punished — because he most assuredly would be punished. It was essential that the cosmic balance be restored and the only way that could possibly happen was if Oedipus were punished. It mattered not that he didn’t know his father was the man he killed on the road and the woman he subsequently married was his mother. It didn’t even matter that he fathered children by her. What mattered was that he committed a terrible wrong and it had to be set right.

Fundamentally the same notion of restoring cosmic harmony can be found in a number of Eastern religions in the notion of “karma.” It can be found in such religions as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Taoism, Shintoism, and Ching Hai, among others. It is a common thread running through both Eastern and Western thought for many hundreds of years. We still hear today the trite notion the “what goes around comes around.” As it happens, this is a faint echo of the deep-seated notion that wrongs will inevitably be punished.

For the Greeks, of course, the wrong resulted from hubris, excessive pride — not pride, per se, but excessive pride. A certain amount of pride was expected of a Greek: after all, he was a Greek and not a barbarian! But excessive pride was the essence of tragedy for the Greeks and it could be exhibited by an entire city and the results would be the same: the wrong must be set right to restore cosmic balance. Thucydides wrote a history of the war between Sparta and Athens which was lost by Athens, a tragedy according to the historian brought about as a result of excessive arrogance and pride on the part of the Athenian leaders resulting in a series of tactical blunders. Oedipus, of course, exhibited hubris because he ignored oracular warnings and arrogantly proceeded as though he were in control of his own destiny. No one is in control of his destiny, according to the ancients, not even the most powerful of men and women. Not even the gods: Moira was beyond even them.

We, of course, know better (!) We are certain that we are free and control our own destiny. And despite our lip service to karma, we don’t really take seriously the notion that wrongs will be punished — not by the courts, not by the gods, or even by powers beyond the gods, as the Greeks saw it. We know better.

Or do we? We might take a page from these ancient books of wisdom and think about hubris. There can be no question that as a nation we are arrogant and suffer from excessive (unwarranted) pride. We insist that we know how others should live their lives. And if they choose not to live the way we think they should, we feel justified in sending drones deep into their world, or fighter planes with powerful weapons designed to “take out” the enemy (and numberless innocent people cataloged as “collateral damage”). Further, in the name of “jobs” we continue to assault the earth and insist that she bend to our will and yield up all her treasure. Time will tell whether jobs are more important than stewardship of the earth, or whether we are right and everyone else is wrong — or whether the ancients were right all along and at some point cosmic balance must be restored.


You have almost certainly heard about the brew-ha-ha surrounding Michael Sam, the large football player from the University of Missouri who “came out of the closet” last Spring to the delight of talking heads around the country. He was recently drafted by the St. Louis Rams and gave his partner a large kiss on the mouth moments after breaking down in tears upon receiving word that he had been drafted. The moment was doubly shocking to many because Sam is black and his partner is white: not only homosexuality, but inter-racial homosexuality! The emotions of the two men were very real and the ensuing discussion by the talking heads rather intense. . . . and certainly ongoing.

To their credit both the NFL and ESPN, which have supported Sam in their coverage of the events surrounding his announcement and subsequent draft status, aired the film of the kiss repeatedly ( I say again, repeatedly) as if to say: we fully support homosexuality in sports and if you don’t like it that’s your problem. The networks love to show raw emotion as a rule, but the kiss between a man and his male partner broke new ground and it was praised on one side and condemned on the other. Some have likened this event to Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on a bus in 1955. This was a historical event, to be sure, and the emotions of many people have been stirred: reverberations will be heard for many months to come, I dare say. I suspect that many folks in TV land sprained their thumbs tweeting hate mail regarding Sam to their friends. The man has made a bed that I suspect he will find very hard to lie in. But I sincerely wish him well. He showed great courage given the temper of the times; homosexuality is simply a fact of life and it is time we grew up, recognized it and came to accept it.

After all, the Greeks, especially the Thebans and Spartans who were reputed to be some of the most fearless warriors the world has known, were unashamedly homosexual. They admired the male body, wrestled in the nude (as did their Athenian neighbors) and simply accepted the fact that men could love one another and even have sex with no social stigma attached. Socrates was supposed to have had a sexual relationship with Alcibiades while, at the same time, he was married and had several children. Homosexual practices in Greece, usually involving an older man and a younger one, go back at least to Homer who suggested the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus in the Iliad. There were, as well, homosexual relationships between women as depicted by the poet Sappho. These relationships were not regarded as the least bit unusual, which leads me to surmise that 2000 years ago they were more sophisticated and mature than we are! What happened in the meantime, of course, was organized Christianity in all its myriad forms (especially Puritanism) and the attendant taboos against all sorts of sexual conduct, not the least of which were homosexual activities, and even simple nudity.

Anthony Burgess wrote a novel years ago titled The Wanting Seed in which he envisioned a time when the earth had started to dry up and stop producing food to feed its burgeoning human populations. The expanding numbers of hungry humans led the leaders of his world to embrace homosexuality and hold it up as a paradigm for human conduct. It was one way to reduce the exploding populations of humans: after all, there cannot be any progeny as a result of sexual intercourse between consenting, same-sex, partners! He may have been on to something. It might be that after the dust has settled from Michael Sam’s passionate embrace and kiss on national television — and that will take some time — we will come to not only accept homosexuality as a fact of life, but regard it as exemplary behavior to be emulated. In a word, we may eventually grow up, which is a good thing. And as a bonus, as Burgess suggested, it may be a way of reducing the growing number of humans who seem determined to destroy the planet while they express their mindless outrage at what they regard as bizarre sexual behavior.

True Patriotism

Years ago John Dewey wrote a book titled Democracy and Education in which he argued convincingly that a democratic system required an educated citizenry. In fact, Dewey went so far as to insist that the purpose of education is to turn out citizens who are enlightened enough to select their leaders and understand what they are up to.

Our system, of course, is not a democracy, strictly speaking. It is a Republic in which citizens elect representatives who do the actual governing, thereby leaving them time to do the important tasks of making a living and enjoying their leisure. But at its founding, the framers of our Constitution didn’t really trust the citizens to elect their governors: they insisted on an electoral system whereby (even in the House of Representatives) the citizens (white males only) chose “Electors [who] shall have the qualifications requisite for Electors of the most numerous branch of the State Legislature.” And the Senate was to be elected “by the Legislature” in each state. The President was to be elected by an electoral college, which is to say a number of men [sic] “equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives” appointed (not elected) “in such Manner as the Legislature [within each state] may direct.” In fact, the “people” were to have no direct say in choosing those who made the laws and executed them.

But even with this restricted role in the election of those that govern, Thomas Jefferson  who famously said  a nation cannot be both “ignorant and free” insisted that a minimum of three years of “free instruction” should be required of all boys, with allowance for another ten years for those who wish it, including four years at a University (which he personally established in Virginia). Girls were to receive a three years of free instruction as well (!) These ideas were taken from Plato’s Republic where Plato insisted that education is the key to governance and that all children, male and female, should receive an education  — though he hated the idea of a democracy where the “demoi” [the people] who had no idea whatever what they were doing were supposed to run the show. The “demoi” of course, were the ones who sentenced Plato’s mentor, Socrates, to death in democratic Athens. So we can understand why Plato wouldn’t trust them. But neither did Jefferson and his friends. Not entirely. And certainly not without a sound education.

Eventually, of course, our educational system was expanded to include all girls and boys and required ten years instead of only three. Participation in electing those who govern  expanded hand in glove with education. The two have traditionally been regarded as necessary to one another. All of which brings me to my main point.

Consider those today who regard themselves as the most patriotic, most in love with their country — those who wave their flags the most vigorously and talk the loudest about “freedom” and their “rights” — the so-called “conservatives” in this country. Consider, further, the irony that these people are seemingly committed to the dissolution of the public school system. These are the people, by and large, who vote to cut teacher’s salaries and argue that large classes are better than small ones, and seek to dictate what sorts of curriculum should be taught. In a word, they do what they can to reduce the educational system to a nullity — all in the name of love of country.

If these people truly loved their country as they say they do, if they were truly patriotic, they would insist that their country have the best education system possible and would willingly pay taxes to support salaries attractive enough to bring the best and brightest minds to the classrooms to teach their children — and keep them there. But we know this is not the case. Our educational system struggles from flawed strategies and a confusion of purpose. Further, it is in constant danger of imploding as a result of constant carping and a reluctance to pay the piper led by those who profess to care the most about their country. But given the inviolable relationship between education and democracy as noted above, when the educational system finally collapses it will be the end of the democratic experiment in this country and we will have moved on to something else — a corporatocracy, perhaps?