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.

The Trial of Socrates is a curious piece of work, both admirable and unsatisfactory. Few of us in our seventies would have the stamina and devotion to the subject which have turned I.F. Stone into a considerable Classical scholar. The resulting book is so engaging that it seems unkind to point out that it is also pretty unpersuasive, and it is such a testimony to its author’s intellectual energy that it seems even more unkind to complain that it’s also astonishingly anti-intellectual. At his best Stone writes so well that it’s painful to report that he is not infrequently crude, clumsy and repetitive into the bargain. These deficiencies ought not to deter the reader. The Trial of Socrates is the latest in the distinguished genre of indictments levelled against the founders of Western philosophy by furious 20th-century liberals. It belongs with Dick Crossman’s Thirties Plato Today, where Plato appears as the first fascist, or with Karl Popper’s postwar assault, The Open Society and its Enemies, which accuses Plato of racism, totalitarianism, and a fair cross-section of the sins of Hegel and Marx.

Where Stone is unusual is in making Socrates as big a villain as his disciple Plato. For Popper, Socrates was a genuine philosopher, a democrat and a liberal, open-minded and humanitarian in his sympathies; among Plato’s innumerable betrayals, making Socrates into an intellectual totalitarian was one of the worst. Stone takes a wholly different line. Socrates was no mere mouthpiece for Plato’s authoritarian ideas. Certainly, Socrates would have been lost to history if Plato hadn’t written the four great dialogues commemorating his trial and death – the Euthyphro, the Crito, the Apology of Socrates and the Phaedo – but the historical Socrates was no more admirable a figure than Plato. Since this is a political indictment, the philosophical differences between Plato and Socrates don’t much bother Stone, let alone such staples of scholarly debate as the differences between the earlier and the later Plato. What may bother Stone’s readers is not this uninterest in the scholarly staples so much as a curious unevenness of tone between the earlier and the later chapters of his account. In his introduction, Stone takes Socrates seriously, even if it is in no friendly fashion. He observes that ‘Socrates is as much a tragic hero as Oedipus or Hamlet,’ and remarks that ‘it is hard to read Socrates’s serene farewell to his disciples in the Phaedo without a tear’ or remain unmoved by Socrates’s last words to his judges in the Apology. Two hundred pages later, the picture of Socrates is not a picture of a tragic hero, but of a silly and obstinate old man, with an inexplicable death-wish. His views on immortality are dismissed as ‘weird’, no attempt is made to understand why the Greeks were so inclined to think human existence a burden, and everything that makes Socrates interesting is flattened by the politics.

The reason, of course, is that Socrates has been hauled out of fifth-century Athens to stand trial again in 20th-century America. Just as Crossman’s Plato and Popper’s Plato were figures in a 20th-century fight, and their books weapons in the war against the dictators of the Thirties and Forties, so Stone’s Socrates is a figure in a modern drama – in this case, the defence of the American republic’s better nature against McCarthyism, political élitism, and the ill-effects of popular panic. Stone tells us that The Trial of Socrates is only one fragment of an unwritten history of freedom of thought that he sat down to write when heart trouble forced him to give up I.F. Stone’s Weekly in 1971. The project wasn’t just a hobby to keep himself occupied in retirement. In a manner of speaking, his view of the history of freedom of thought was what led him to establish his Weekly in the dark days of the Republican Fifties. Stone has always revered Thomas Jefferson, and espoused a leftish liberalism intended to recall America to her mission as the best hope of the common man rather than the conservative super-power she has too often become. At the same time, he has preached the need to marry Marx and Jefferson to anyone who would listen in Eastern Europe, in an effort to drag Communist regimes back into the liberal mainstream.

Stone’s Athens is a Jeffersonian Athens, radical, egalitarian, imaginative, innovative and free. In the excellent company of Moses Finley, he is a fan of democratic Athens and an enemy of the ‘thinly disguised oligarchy’ of republican Rome. That the Athens of the fifth century BC was greedy, aggressive, imperialistic, and not infrequently brutal, he doesn’t deny, but he is at no pains to emphasise it. To run up a sufficiently severe indictment of Socrates, he has to credit Athens with the traditional virtues of American democracy, and therefore to play down the exclusion of women from public life, the existence of slavery, and the extent to which war was the normal condition of relations between states. Like everyone who writes about Athenian democracy, he relies heavily on Thucydides’s Peloponnesian War, and there, too, he has to read selectively. Thucydides deliberately juxtaposed the virtues and vices of democratic Athens, even when there was much to celebrate. But Stone can’t afford to dwell on that. All liberals are quite rightly addicted to Pericles’s Funeral Oration, with its praise of Athens as ‘the school of Hellas’, but Stone swallows the speech in one gulp, and declines to notice that it ends with Thucydides’s élitist jibe that Athenian democracy flourished only when the people handed over the reins to Pericles as an uncrowned monarch.

For anyone not entirely indoctrinated with the professional historian’s fastidiousness about anachronistic interpretation, Stone’s robust, no nonsense methods are often refreshing. Unimpressed by his philosophy, he sees Socrates as no more than a crony of Athenian aristocrats who were apt to see themselves as the heirs of the heroes of Homer, and resented being governed by the common man. Stone has no time for pedigrees, and less for the Greeks of the Heroic Age; Achilles was a ‘cry-baby’, and Odysseus a schemer and a trickster, as well as a part-time pirate. The motives of those who flocked to Agamemnon’s banner were of the lowest – loot, rape and slave-trading; Agamemnon himself had murdered his own daughter on the beach at Aulis, and Mycenean heroes in general bear all too close a resemblance to mafiosi. They were snobbish, thuggish, and none too bright, and their vanishing from the earth was pure gain. Insofar as Socrates hankered after a return to the Golden Age, he was, on this view of the matter, just silly. It made no more sense than it makes for 20th-century New Yorkers to hanker after being ruled by King Arthur and his knights. Stone’s history is a good deal like Mark Twain’s, and hardly the worse for it either.

Still, historical, textual, and interpretative questions will creep in. Did Socrates hanker after a return to aristocratic or monarchical government? Ought we to take works like Plato’s Republic as evidence of Socrates’s political inclinations’? Were the Athenians really holding a political trial, and did they not care about Socrates’s supposed impiety? Stone swings between a more and less extreme view. At the least, he thinks, Socrates did what he could to undermine belief in democracy. There is no doubt that the dialogues-all of which Stone dismisses as verbal trifling and nonsense – suggest that democratic government is hopeless. The Gorgias and Protagoras mock the idea that debate, persuasion and voting can have anything to do with the pursuit of good government. The Republic puts the ideal city under the rule of the philosopher-king, and even the Laws. Plato’s final defence of the ‘second-best’, practicable city, envisages an ideological watchdog in the shape of the Nocturnal Council, staffed by a priesthood with powers of life and death over dissenters of all sorts. Stone is prone to hit Socrates with anything he can lay hands on, so that the inconclusive dialogues in which Socrates ends up confessing that he does not know what virtue is don’t count as evidence for the defence they are rubbished as a waste of time – while the more didactic dialogues in which he lays down that virtue is knowledge of the True, Good and Beautiful are cited as authoritarian attempts to do down the plain man and common sense.

Stone suggests that Socrates’s hostility to democracy went deeper than depicted in silly dialogues. If the Socrates of the Platonic dialogues is more than a mere mouthpiece for Plato, Socrates was deeply embroiled with the men who led the two successful attempts and the one unsuccessful attempt to overthrow Athenian democracy. The Athenians who put him on trial in 399 had experienced the dictatorship of the Four Hundred in 411, and the much more ferocious dictatorship of the Thirty Tyrants at the end of the Peloponnesian War; they would have had fresh in their minds the memory of the events of 401, when the last supporters of the Thirty tried to launch a new assault on the restored democracy. Stone doesn’t suggest that Socrates played an active part in these oligarchical conspiracies: but he was a well-known figure who made no secret of his contempt for the regime they had tried to subvert, and he was therefore a plausible target of suspicion.

In Plato’s Apology, Socrates reminds the judges that he had risked his life in refusing the orders of the Thirty. Stone’s considered judgment is that this attempt to show that he had stood up to die oligarchy in 404 was bound to misfire. Socrates had, in fact, behaved in a cowardly way: while others left Athens and organised resistance, he had stayed at home and kept his head down, and on the occasion he referred to, where he had refused to take part in the illegal arrest and murder of Leon of Salamis, he did nothing further to help save him, but ‘simply went home’. Add to this the contempt he expressed throughout for his accusers, and his equally contemptuous suggestion that an appropriate penalty for his alleged crimes would be a pension from public funds enabling him to continue his career as ‘gadfly’, and it is no wonder the jury voted narrowly for a conviction, and then overwhelmingly for the death penalty.

Practical-minded as ever, Stone devotes almost a quarter of the book to showing Socrates how he might have persuaded the Athenian jury to throw out the charges and let him off. As Stone says, there is something pretty odd about an Athens that roared with laughter at the plays of Aristophanes putting on a long face and launching a prosecution for blasphemy; equally, there is something pretty odd about the city which had been amazingly restrained in its treatment of the oligarchy’s known supporters after the restoration of democracy in 403 turning on an old man who had done no visible harm to anyone. Why could not Socrates have reminded the jury of Athens’s liberal traditions, and got off with a caution? Wilful self-destruction must have been Socrates’s aim, since it would have been so easy to secure an acquittal – and since he turned his back on the chance to escape.

But that sensible approach somehow seems to miss the point. It is partly a matter of Stone’s relentless simplification of Socrates’s views, and partly of the sheer oddness of those views. Socrates’s unwillingness to do more to defy the Thirty Tyrants man ‘simply go home’ did Leon of Salamis no good: but Socrates himself pointed out that his daimon never told him to do any positive good – it only held him back from what he must not do. Had the government of die Thirty threatened to kill him for not obeying them, he would have taken no notice of their threats. He was not the coward Stone implies; his concerns really were other-worldly, and unpolitical – and by modern, utilitarian standards pretty inhuman. Like I.F. Stone, Pericles might well have thought Socrates a lousy citizen, since Pericles agreed with most of Athens that a man who merely ‘minds his own business’ was ‘a man who has no business here’. But Socrates thought himself a citizen of another country, owing allegiance to other truths than those the Athenians lived by. Nobody knows what he thought of the aristocratic young men who were turned on by his conversation. In the last resort, probably not much: and there is little reason to think he expected them to found the City of God in Attica.

Moral originals like Socrates cause us the same intellectual and emotional difficulties as moral originals like Gandhi. We just don’t know what they really want, nor how they expect their views to affect everyday politics. They can therefore be irritating. They can also be unsettling, and it is not beyond belief that the Athenians simply thought Socrates was too hostile to the gods for his own or the city’s good and should therefore be shut up. Since he refused to stop teaching his strange views to any young man who was willing to listen, he was a menace to their morals, and thus guilty as charged on the indictment reported in the Apology. Thomas Hobbes’s influence on the ‘briske witts’ of Charles II’s court was of the same order, and John Aubrey reported that that, too, provoked a move to ‘have the old man burned as an heretic’. The Athenians may anyway not have meant to do more than frighten Socrates out of the city. According to Plutarch, many Athenians were ready to ostracise Aristides because they were fed up with hearing him called ‘Aristides the Just’: it’s not unlikely that his accusers just wanted Socrates to go away, and were tough-minded enough not to care very much if he behaved stupidly and insisted on taking the death sentence more literally than they had meant it. Athens was neither the first nor the last society to lash out in a moral panic – a thought which suggests that Stone could have drawn plenty of lessons for 20th-century America (and 20th-century Britain too) if he had chosen to write a less political, less urgent and less anachronistic account of the trial of Socrates.