Stone’s Socrates

Alan Ryan

  • The Trial of Socrates by I.F. Stone
    Cape, 282 pp, £12.95, September 1988, ISBN 0 224 02591 0

The trial and execution of the aged philosopher Socrates in 399 BC for ‘impiety and corruption of the youth of Athens’ was the second most famous miscarriage of justice in Western history. Indeed, philosophers have often written it up as a secular prefiguring of the Crucifixion, with Socrates suffering martyrdom for his belief in the demands of his conscience, and the Athenian democracy which perpetrated the miscarriage of justice getting about as bad a press as the crowd which preferred Barabbas to Christ. Not everyone hits quite that note: among sentimental treatments of the case, a short French account of Trois Procès Scandaleux lowers the tone a bit by setting the case alongside the trial of Marie Antoinette. Nor is it quite true that everyone who has written about the trial has taken Socrates’s side, certainly not in the sense of returning a simple verdict of ‘miscarriage of justice’ against the Athenians.

For Hegel, Socrates was a world-historical figure, whose emphasis on obeying his own conscience – or daimon – brought into the world a non-political conception of individual freedom inconsistent with the Athenian view that being free was simply a matter of being a citizen of a free city. Though Hegel thought that History endorsed the sanctity of the individual conscience, guaranteeing Socrates’s eventual victory, and putting the Athenians cosmically in the wrong, he nevertheless allowed that the moral individualism preached by Socrates was a real threat to the unreflecting loyalty that the Greek city states expected of their citizens. If the Athenians were wrong, they acted in legitimate self-defence. Nietzsche went further. He shared Hegel’s belief that the soul-centred individualism preached by Christ had in essentials come into the world with Socrates; unlike Hegel, he regretted the discovery – or invention – of the Christian conscience, and thought the Athenians had been right to try to stamp out the pestilence. Nietzsche was by no means the only thinker to side with Athenian moral conservatism. At the end of the 19th century, Georges Sorel’s long essay on Le Procès de Socrates treated Socrates as a prototype of Robespierre or Calvin. It was an illusion to suppose that he had been any more committed to the freedom of the individual conscience than they had been; like them, his aim was to impose his own conscience as the rule of everyone else’s actions. Sorel took pleasure in teasing liberal intellectuals about the failings of their hero, but behind the teasing was the serious thought that the moral reformation that Socrates demanded of his hearers was invariably the first step towards tyranny.

I.F. Stone belongs neither in the camp of the critics of Athenian democracy, nor in the camp of the Nietzscheans who despise the modern world. The Trial of Socrates paints Socrates as a snobbish, pederastic, nostalgic, head-in-air, know-all anti-democrat, whose conduct and views gave democratic Athens every reason to dislike him, despise him, mock him or ignore him, but no right to silence and execute him. Killing Socrates was not a legitimate act of self-defence for which Athens should be praised; nor was it simply one more crime committed by a fickle democracy all too prone to expulsions and exclusions. It was a quite uncharacteristic piece of repression explicable in terms of the political events preceding it, but none the less inexcusable. Tout comprendre is far from tout pardonner: Stone thinks he knows why the Athenians panicked and violated their usual high standards of legality and toleration, but still deplores their doing it.

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