The Guardian UK published this promotion of Bettany Hughes' The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens, and the Search for the Good Life.It's a biography of Socrates claiming to put him in his proper context and, if the article mirrors the book, trying to make him relevant for today.
One of the points in the piece is that when Athens was a flourishing democracy, economically strong and militarily mighty, it could tolerate a gadfly like Socrates. But when it was weak, beset by enemies and questioning its own values, Athenians "took a more fundamentalist view" and put him to the sword (or hemlock, as the case was). At the end, he says that it isn't what he said or did that will convict him, but the court of public opinion ruled by gossip and rumor.
Naturally, language like that is intend to suggest that modern Western society (in the Democratic states), has seen its heyday and is in a depressed, self-questioning phase. That might be a fair characterization or might not, but - as we've said on this blog before - there definitely seems to be a decline in rational, civil discourse. Take a look at what is happening in political debate in this country if you doubt, or check out almost any current events show filled with talking heads.
If the current court of public opinion is ruled by gossip and rumor, it's not the public we should blame, but the media. Perfect current example: the takeover of the Chevron ad campaign by the Yes Men. [Disclaimer: I went to college with one of them and think their stuff is fantastic] At least some media outlets simply picked up the fake site and ran with it. Fact checking be damned, the distribution of "news" on the internet has really just become the repetition of what will get attention. Not so much rumor or gossip as whoring for clicks and page views. So who cares what's true? Why report when you can re-tweet? And what is the punishment for making a mistake? More attention. This is only one example, but there are many others.
For democracy to thrive, there has to be unfettered civil discourse among an educated electorate. The government is taking care of eliminating the latter, the media is destroying the former, and the vehicle that is making all of that possible at such a rapid pace is the internet, which is owned, for all intents and purposes by Google. I'm not sure if Hughes is suggesting there is a lamb we have currently slaughtered who is our Socrates, or that one needs to emerge to hold a mirror up to our sorry culture. I am sure that even if he existed and had a website, he'd be buried in the mass overload of detritus on the internet. And there is no agora in Mountain View.
“For democracy to thrive, there has to be unfettered civil discourse among an educated electorate.”
In Australia political ‘discourse’ amongst the electorate (as well as our elected officials) amounts to little more than cherry picking and ad hominem. And while our gubmint is quite focused on education, this focus is more on vocational ‘skills based’ learning, with the humanities, and to a lesser extent the sciences, getting shafted.
Every time I try and engage with the results our society I just end up feeling sickened and very depressed. I think that for democracy to thrive it will also require a way for even the moderately intelligent to overcome their revulsion. I find it very hard not to tune out.
Daniel Horne says
Good points all, but allow me a quick rebuttal.
I’ve only seen interviews with Hughes on this book, and what I’ve seen makes me worry that it’s simply going to be more Socrates hagiography. As many historians (notably IF Stone) have pointed out before, Socrates was not simply a martyr of free speech, but was perceived as a credible threat to Athenian democracy and civil order. He had clearly made a lot of enemies by his association Critias (of the recently-deposed Thirty Tyrants). One could forgive Athenians at the time for fearing that he may have been influencing a new generation of Athenians to overthrow democracy once and for all. Quite beyond that, you get the sense that at least one of his accusers opposed Socrates more from long-standing personal feuds, rather than from offended sensibilities at his political criticism. And even then, 44% of the jury voted to acquit Socrates – a pretty close call.
I’m not trying to gainsay you, but I think an interesting question left by Socrates’ trial is this:
How long should a democracy tolerate someone who promotes and incites an anti-democratic movement, _assuming_ that democracy perceives a legitimate threat to civil order (and not just common sensibilities and mores)?
If we envision Socrates as someone more akin to a radical imam in London, exploiting democratic freedoms in order to promote an overthrow of that very democracy, then I can see how a (scant) majority of the Athenian jury might have found him guilty.
My guess is that the whole affair may simply have been payback from the new government, who simply resented his perceived (but kinda real) association with the Thirty, but needed a way to get around the general amnesty that followed the Thirty’s overthrow.
Of course, given that America as a society can’t agree on the results of the Rosenbergs trial, the Hiss trial, the _OJ_ trial(!), etc., I wonder what we can ever really make of Socrates’ trial. It’s just impossible to know exactly what was going on.
Re: American democracy:
Not to sound too contrarian, but ~150 years ago the US had such a decline in civil political discourse that we went to war with each other. Before that, we had congressmen physically assaulting one another with the intent to maim. And before that we had Burr shooting Hamilton. And before that – tax collectors getting tarred and feathered!
Or, more recently, during the 20th century’s 1st & 2nd Red Scare eras, citizens were prosecuted (or otherwise persecuted) for voicing unpopular political stances.
I think its good to see that gossip, rumor, and callowness may be the _only_ things corrupting media coverage of political events. But frankly, I think US political discourse is better than its ever been.
By which I mean to say that:
(a) modern technology makes more intelligent political commentary available free to the public than ever before, (for those who choose to seek it out — see, e.g., your very blog),
(b) civil liberty norms allow more people to speak their mind, about a broader spectrum of topics, more freely than ever before.
My experience is consonant with your OP, Seth. I ‘prematurely’ retired from a tenured university job after getting swamped with the political backlashes from peers and administrators who did not like what they saw in the mirror. U administration, the college, and its departments (especially mine) were functioning at such a level of low quality academically that I finally started pointing it all out. I recall my department head once saying to me “I guess there could be a need for gadflies sometimes,” but he decidedly did not approve of them in particular…
Ethan Gach says
Athen’s had similar problems with its hero generals, Pericles during the Peloponnesian wars, and Themistocles before him in the Greco-Persian wars. So it seems whenever the going got tough, political enemies within the democracy would lead the populace in demagogic reasoning and leave their once beloved leaders out to dry.
Ethan Gach says
Just saw “Leaves of Grass” on a Netflix DVD. Most excellent movie with a philosophy professor as the main character, though his redneck kin and their friends back on the farm prove to be pretty deep thinkers too. If you and your readers haven’t already heard of it, I think you will appreciate how well written and surprisingly philosophically rich the story is.
Try to catch the professors’ opening lecture with the parallel Platonic idea his redneck twin relates to a friend.
A well crafter movie.
What is the purpose of the comboxes at this website?
Seth Paskin says
1. I don’t know what a “combox” is so I can’t answer your question.
2. It seems clear to me that the book will be a haigiography as well. My post wasn’t intended to defend its thesis but to point out that there is someone who thinks there are parallels between ancient Athens and modern Western society and suggests there are lessons we can learn from Socrates and his trial, presumably about our Democratic principles. No need for rebutting on that point.
Your comments are certainly more interesting and thought-provoking than the thinly veiled advertisement that was the ‘article’ in the Guardian. So here are some thoughts:
A democracy should tolerate someone who *promotes* anti-democratic sentiment as far as the limits of free-speech allow. A democracy should not tolerate someone who *incites* anti-democratic activity at all. Structurally, democracy creates the space to make changes to it through its own internal mechanisms. If you want change outside that structure, you are in opposition to it and it has a right to resist.
Of course, I’m thinking of the Socrates of Plato, who was exercising free speech. The ‘actual’ Socrates may very well have been perceived to be a threat to democracy (at least he didn’t write a book advocating its antithesis) or may simply have been used by the regime to make a statement. As you say, it’s impossible to know what was going on.
Your points about civil discourse in America’s past are well taken. I didn’t mean to imply that we have always had such: my point was that the current media is economically-driven and indifferent, and that is a direct result of the internet, which is owned by Google. Of course Senators were caning each other over “states rights” and Hearst had a political agenda that he propogated through his publications. And while the enabling of so many different voices is fantastic, I don’t think that means that political discourse is better than it has ever been. It means access to information and opinions is better than it has ever been, but it has exceeded the individual’s – particularly the ‘unexamined’ individual’s – capacity to process. So I guess that I agree with your (a) and (b), but I would make a distinction between information being available for free and freely available. I don’t think many people have a sense of how much control of information (direct and indirect) is actually being exercised.
I’ll check out Leaves of Grass.
@Geoff – I empathize. Just voted today with a heavy heart and pit in my stomach.