When I first read the three Platonic dialogues on the arrest, trial, and death of Socrates to my high school teacher, Mr. Cohen, I was moved by the sacrifice he made of his own life when he could have just gone into exile. To do so, he felt, would repudiate his life’s work. He wanted to find what motivated people and what were the most suitable ways to live in a democratic Athenian society. Instead he found most people were motivated by power, making money, favoring their families, getting the approvals of their peers, following their parental desires, greed, pleasure, or fame. What Socrates sought for himself was intellectual honesty, a search for meaning in life, the satisfactions of teaching, and skepticism of popular cultural and state credos. He developed the “Socratic method” of inquiry, using a series of questions to explore a person’s claims by showing where each person’s beliefs led to. Very often those who held shallow views soon found themselves stuck in contradictions. Socrates did not do this to heap ridicule on the pretentious, he did this to find what is true so that we would not have to be defending false values and beliefs. Socrates taught the sons of many wealthy Athenians. Their parents were unhappy when their children began to question them and raise criticism about the Athenian state. When Athens lost to Persia and then gained control again, Socrates was arrested and charged with corrupting the youth of Athens. He was convicted by his peers. He gathered his friends together and drank a cup of hemlock (his choice of how to die) and consoled them that he had lived a life worth living.
I have never had that dramatic a consequence for sticking up for something I believed to be true. I had one confrontation with a teacher in high school, defending another student’s nomination for membership in our high school Service Council. He later became an undersecretary of State in the first Bush administration. Unlike Socrates, I took the practical route and apologized to the teacher. I had a similar experience in the Honors College at Stony Brook and defended a student that my fellow administrators wanted to expel from the Honors College. He asked me to write a letter of appeal and I did, writing one appeal after another up the chain of command to the university president. And he won! He went on to win a brilliancy prize in mathematics for the best performance on the Putnam examination and went to Princeton, the top math department in the US. My argument as Master of the Honors College, was that we should tolerate idiosyncratic students because they are more likely to become our eminent faculty. Socrates was idiosyncratic because he challenged authority and conventional belief, making him both impious and subversive to the state. We celebrate our founding fathers, but weren’t they doing what Socrates did in Athens? But for most people who are comfortable with their lives, the Socratic personality is irritating and threatens the way those in power work. We don’t like whistleblowers, “rabble rousers”, protestors, critics of industry, the military, the churches, or other institutions that serve as the prevailing glue of society keeping it together. But without critics we would have racism, sexism, cronyism, and oppression of the powerless. For some people, that is exactly what they want for their status quo and privileges. I thank Socrates for giving me a conscience about the abuses of society.