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!

 

Dodging Taxes

A recent story in Yahoo News caught my eye. Apparently there is movement afoot among the very wealthy to renounce their citizenship and skip the country to protect their filthy lucre. The story reads, in part:

According to a 2012 study published by the Research Institute of Industrial Economics that examined the mobility of billionaires over the past two decades, “70% [of those billionaires] have migrated from a higher to a lower capital gains tax country … One-third of the billionaires that moved went to small countries defined as ‘tax havens,’” including Switzerland, Bahamas and Singapore.

Presumably these billionaires are all Americans. In any event, we can infer from this that the exodus has been going on for some time. But apparently with the new tax increases  that have raised the taxes among the very wealthy a huge 4.6% the number of people from this country who are seeking asylum elsewhere in places where their money is safe from the IRS has increased. In the state of California where Proposition 30 has added to the tax burden of the very wealthy — and where millionaires like Phil Mickelson can be heard crying poor — the number of people thinking about leaving the country is even larger.

There are several interesting ramifications of this exodus. To begin with, one must question these people’s patriotism, which involves both rights and responsibilities. They obviously see taxes simply as a burden — as though the state and the Federal government are stealing their money; they recognize no obligation whatever to the state and country that have provided them with the opportunity to accumulate this huge wealth. Nor do they see themselves as part of a larger inter-dependent community. Rather, they see themselves, on the whole, as self-made men and women who didn’t need anyone’s help along the way. We noted that when Romney was running for President. It is apparently an affliction which the vast majority of wealthy in this country are stricken with, a kind of moral blindness. We might call it the “self-sufficient syndrome” (S.S.S.) They are blind to their obligations to others.

But this tax money can do so much good in the states and the country at large to improve the infrastructure, assist the poor to get back on their feet, improve the schools which are near the bottom of the world’s educational heap, and improve the lot of those who are in need of proper health care. None of these things seems to factor in with those whose lives are focused entirely on the effort to accumulate and protect their (often) ill-gotten gains.

The hope of the founders was that the Republic would encourage public virtue, the desire of all people to place the common good above self-interest. Their hope was that this form of government, of all the kinds the world has ever known, would involve its citizens in the effort to build a community of kindred spirits who would pull together to make the country strong and vibrant. Instead, many U.S. citizens see nothing but the opportunity to gain wealth and continue to do so until they die  (“the one with the most toys when he dies wins”) — at which point they will hand as much of it as possible over to their children to give them the same sort of head-start they almost certainly had themselves. So those lofty ideals of apparently naive thinkers in the eighteenth century who founded this nation have been replaced by the reality of greed and self-interest (the very things they feared). And those of us who will be left behind after the exodus is over will have to clean up their mess.