If the independent left-wing journalist I. F. Stone had lived to write this 1988 bestseller in 2019 instead, he might have expressed its thesis this way:
Socrates was an alt-right troll redpilling young men with corrosive irony and anti-democratic sentiment; therefore, democratic Athens’s decision to deplatform him was at least defensible, despite the city-state’s political commitment to freedom of speech.
Stone was best-known as the author of I. F. Stone’s Weekly, a leftist newsletter that ran from 1953 to 1971. It might even be seen as the ancestor of my own enterprise here, as Christopher Hitchens superciliously noted in a piece on Stone from 2006:
Stone himself was impervious to all such career anxiety, because by launching a kitchen-table one-man sheet called I. F. Stone’s Weekly he had declared independence and blasted the way that is now too easily followed by a throng of self-publishers and blog artists.
We in this “throng” may be facile, but there is something emancipatory in not having a book deal or academic tenure or a regular magazine perch; with nothing to lose, we “self-publishers and blog artists” might as well just tell the truth. (Ignore the end of that article, by the way; like so many of Hitch’s essays from the Bush years, it culminates in a bathetic attempt to recruit its defenseless subject to his own misguided support for the Iraq War.)
When Stone retired from his newsletter for health reasons, he learned ancient Greek and became expert in classical scholarship to find out the truth about an event that “had horrified [him] as a civil libertarian”: “How could the trial of Socrates have happened in so free a society? How could Athens have been so untrue to itself?” This erudite but conversational examination of the evidence, which became a bestseller and classic of popular nonfiction, makes a persuasive and quite nuanced case to the common reader.
That Socrates was no democrat is familiar enough even to the casually educated—in these matters, I count myself among them—who probably encountered The Republic‘s advocacy of philosophical kingship and theory of the noble lie somewhere along the way. Stone’s merit is to knit these well-known political propositions both to the more rarefied strains of Socrates’s (and Plato’s) philosophy and to contemporaneous events in the public life of fifth-century Athens.
First, Stone shows that Socrates’s philosophical practice is incompatible with democratic ethics. Take the famous Socratic method, wherein the philosopher “ironically” feigns naivete, the better to expose the faulty logic of his interlocutor—so that you find, after a long conversation with Socrates, that by first agreeing you’d rather have an effective physician than an ineffective one, you have signed yourself up for a theory of absolute monarchy.
The most humiliating—and infuriating—part of the Socratic method of interrogation was that their ignorance was shown to be real while they felt that his self-proclaimed ignorance was ostentatious and pretended. This was the famous Socratic “irony.” The Greek word eironeia from which our word irony derives means dissembling or dissimulation, saying what one did not really mean. His interlocutors felt that, behind his “irony,” his veil of mock-modesty, Socrates was laughing at them. This was the cruelty that lurked behind the Platonic account in its exquisite and aristocratic jesting, all the more deadly for its politesse.
For Stone, Socrates’s use of verbal irony and skepticism to dissolve existing public commitments—which held in Periclean Athens that ethical and political truth, unlike other forms of technical expertise, were within the grasp of all ordinary mortals—prepared the ground for him (or his evangelist, Plato) to enshrine an ideal of absolute truth reachable only by otherworldly adepts (i.e., philosophers), who were thereby alone qualified to govern the polis.
Stone finds further evidence of Socrates’s authoritarianism in the philosopher’s war against the Sophists. The Sophists were paid educators of the urban middle class, whereas Socrates schooled aristocrats for free while living on a modest inheritance. Socrates dismissed them on two grounds: first, with aristocratic disdain for the middle-class’s use of money to attain social power, he claims that true educators should not charge a fee; second, he contends that virtue is not a form of knowledge, at least not of rational or technical knowledge as opposed to mystical gnosis, and therefore can’t be taught.
Philosophically, the journalist Stone, with his reverence for evidence and clear communication, is frustrated and baffled by Socrates and Plato. He casts his lot instead with the pluralism of the Sophists and the more empirical method of Aristotle, who held that truth was not an ideal Platonic world set above this one but rather the abstract of observation and experience.
Stone judges Socrates’s sundering of soul from body an anticipation of the theocratic Dark Ages, his insistence on political non-participation a shameful flight from responsibility, and his quest for absolute truth a “wild goose chase.” He is further affronted by Socrates’s welcoming of death as liberation, his suicidal pursuit of his own martyrdom at the hands of the city so that he could be freed from this shadow-world and into the light. The most Stone can do is ambivalently praise Plato’s literary efforts:
Plato was the archetypal conservative: Above all else, he feared change, and his philosophy sought for a way to escape it. In this search he erected a marvelous edifice of thought which is a joy to explore. But it is also rich in verbal quibbles, contradictions, flights from philosophy into theology, mystical raptures, and engaging absurdities, like gargoyles grimacing at us from the dark corners of a vast medieval cathedral.
Stone makes clear that Socrates would not have been sentenced to death for philosophical conservatism alone, however, given Athens’s generally libertarian atmosphere.
The harsher truth is that his fellow citizens judged Socrates a political threat. Not only did he sympathize with authoritarian Sparta over democratic Athens, but he had also tutored Critias and Charmides, two aristocrats and relatives of Plato who participated in the Sparta-sponsored dictatorship of the Thirty in 404, after Athens’s loss in the Peloponnesian War. These dictators “murdered fifteen hundred Athenians during their brief eight months of rule,” Stone reports, quoting Xenophon and Aristotle as his sources. This was the second time in a decade that an “aristocratic conspiracy” had overthrown Athenian democracy; the first was in 411, when the reactionary rebels came to power with the help of forces who were, in Stone’s words, “the prototypes of the death squads the military used in Argentina, El Salvador, and Chile in our time.”
While Socrates, with his characteristic political aloofness, did not overtly collaborate in these events, Stone reasons that his role as tutor to the violent young men who did triggered his prosecution as corruptor of youth and infidel to the (democratic) gods of the city.
The civil libertarian Stone does not, however, excuse Athens for putting to death a thinker on the basis of his thought, no matter how anti-democratic. In Stone’s view, Athens blundered by proving Socrates right about democracy—by demonstrating that rule by the demos means the suppression of idiosyncrasy and excellence: “His martyrdom…made him a secular saint, the superior man confronting the ignorant mob with serenity and humor.”
While Stone indulges in some fan fiction, wishing Socrates had overtly made a free-speech defense that appealed to the city’s own better angels, he concludes nevertheless that the incorrigible philosopher ought to have been left in peace to annoy, provoke, and even occasionally enlighten. By silencing him instead, Athens gave him—mysticism, authoritarianism, and all—over to history as the patron of the intellect beleaguered by society and left “a stain forever on democracy” in the process.
What can we in the present learn from this 2418-year-old event and this 31-year-old book? First, Stone’s own concept of democracy could perhaps use some more nuance. He is endearingly besotted with Athens—he loves everything about it but Socrates and his associates!
The Athenians lived in a city so beautiful we are still awed by its ruins. Its tragic and comic poets still enchant us. We are still inspired by the best of its political orators. We still learn from their lessons for our time, as other men have done for centuries. If ever a city deserved the full energy and devotion of its citizens, it was Athens. Participating in “politics”—managing the city—was a right, a duty, and an education. But all the Socratics, from Antisthenes to Plato, preached withdrawal from it.
Yet it could be argued by contrast that democracy is something other than democracy if it requires full mobilization of its citizens at all times. Or it is, in any case, not the same as a free society. Recent commentators, dismayed by the extraordinary politicization of every last inch of our lives by culture war and social media, have begun to counsel some withdrawal, not out of anti-democratic sentiment, but to protect democracy from consuming itself and becoming its totalitarian opposite. For instance, the political philosopher Robert B. Talisse writes in Aeon:
The saturation of civic life by democratic politics crowds out the fundamental bases for community and social cooperation that the democratic ethos needs in order to flourish. If we are to work together as a self-governing polity, we must cultivate a kind of civic friendship that enables us to regard each other as fellow citizens and sharers in a common fate. When we interact only on the battlefield of politics, our divisions erode civic friendship. Democracy is thus dismantled.
In an essay in Harper’s, Christopher Beha says much the same:
Knowledge and beauty; pleasure and delight; the contemplation of truth, irrespective of its instrumental uses; the intimate encounter with another human consciousness offered by the best works of art—these are among the things that make life worth living. If we set them aside until we have made it safely through our present emergency, we will never return to them, because our present emergency will never be through. […] The ultimate aim of scaling back our political attention is not apathy but the creation of autonomous space for social, spiritual, and aesthetic experiences. If creeping totalitarianism is your worry, such work is not a form of acquiescence but a form of resistance.
On these theories, we need figures like Socrates and Plato in our democracies to remind us of spiritual and aesthetic matters that can’t be rationalized or formalized as civic debate. The problem with Socrates, as I see it, is not that he was apolitical but that he was too political. He’d be immeasurably improved if he’d never mentioned Sparta or theorized the ideal state. I’ve never read the Republic from cover to cover, but I revere the Symposium and the Phaedrus. One of the benefits of a doctrine of apolitical art is not only that it protects artists from politics, but that it also protects politics from artists.
Moreover, an overweening democracy guarantees authoritarian backlash. To pursue the reference with which I began—Socrates as alt-right troll—consider this recent anonymous article, “What Happened After My 13-Year-Old Son Joined the Alt-Right.” Despite the sensationalist title, the rather unrealistic and parable-like narrative’s true polemical target is the excess of today’s left, which it portrays as the goad driving young men to reactionary politics. The winsome hero’s journey to online Sparta begins with a spurious middle-school sexual-harassment allegation based on an overheard comment:
One morning during first period, a male friend of Sam’s mentioned a meme whose suggestive name was an inside joke between the two of them. Sam laughed. A girl at the table overheard their private conversation, misconstrued it as a sexual reference, and reported it as sexual harassment. Sam’s guidance counselor pulled him out of his next class and accused him of “breaking the law.” Before long, he was in the office of a male administrator who informed him that the exchange was “illegal,” hinted that the police were coming, and delivered him into the custody of the school’s resource officer. At the administrator’s instruction, that man ushered Sam into an empty room, handed him a blank sheet of paper, and instructed him to write a “statement of guilt.”
Whether or not this actually happened as written, it aptly crystallizes into fable the prevalent feeling among the highly-educated middle classes, now finding public utterance if only by anonymous voices, that some of the ostensibly democratic doctrines of “social justice”—a term Stone uses approvingly throughout The Trial of Socrates to mean economic equality with none of today’s race/gender connotations—have become unjust.
“The personal is the political” has a kernel of truth—everything we experience in private life is contained and enabled within a social, economic, and political order, an alteration of which would also alter private experience. But “the personal is the political” also invites the police—in the broadest sense—into every interaction and conversation between any two people, especially when increasingly granular rules for private speech and conduct are enshrined in professional codes or actual law.
Such totalizing of the social into the political is the danger of “too much democracy” to which Socrates’s martyrdom continues to attest, even if the right-wing authoritarian politics that can be read into his philosophy is hardly an improvement. In any case, the essay strongly suggests that young men stigmatized by “too much democracy” may be drawn to just such an anti-democratic politics—a possibility that neither Stone nor many of today’s commentators seem to credit.
When I make observations like the ones above, I am often asked why I seem to hold the left to a higher standard than the right. But I don’t hold the left to a higher standard—the left just is the standard. The left promises peace, freedom, and equality, while the right offers only accommodation to exigencies. This is asymmetrical: the right gets away with more because it provides less. But that’s the price of positing a better future on earth, rather than Platonic perfection high above or hereafter.
I will conclude on that note—the idea of progress. The temporality of the “right side of history” is a very unsettling one. Consider how poorly Stone’s book has aged in just 31 years. On its first page, it invokes the late Cold War and American freedoms. Stone begins by saying he intended to write a study of free speech in general before narrowing his topic down to Socrates:
I hoped that such a study would help a new generation, not only to preserve free speech where it exists—and is always threatened by motives good as well as bad—but to help embattled dissidents in the communist world find their way to a liberating synthesis of Marx and Jefferson.
If your mind spluttered at the final word, I doubt you’re alone. Elsewhere in the book, Stone praises not only Jeffersonian democracy, but also the Jacksonian expansion of the franchise. He does not do so thoughtlessly; he also faults the Founders for their toleration of slavery. But he retains the idea that Jefferson and Jackson represented moments in an ongoing historical dialectic expanding freedom to more and more constituencies, eventually to include humanity at large. America was only the latest name for this hope that began at Athens.
I was taught this narrative in public-school civics and history classes 20 years ago; and even 15 years ago, polemicists against the Bush administration—writers not taken in by its right-wing version of the Hegelian dialectic, as Hitchens was—proudly asked, What Would Jefferson Do? Today, such politics seem as antiquated as Socrates.
Jefferson has swelled into an almost Hitlerian figure in the imagination of the left—the monster of Monticello—while he and Jackson are now remembered not as architects of an imperfectly-realized democracy but of an actively and calculatedly oppressive herrenvolk republic that granted freedom to some and denied it axiomatically to others.
Yet Athens did the same, which Stone certainly does not emphasize. He condemns Socrates for not believing a slave could define virtue more than he faults Athens for having slaves at all. Nor is he troubled, only 10 years after his acquaintance Edward Said published Orientalism, by his sources’ tendency to array freedom vs. authoritarianism on a West/East axis, where exceptionalist Athens, cradle of democracy, is contrasted to “Oriental despotisms” like the Persia over which the Athenians triumphed at Salamis and the Egypt to whose mysteries Plato fled after Socrates’s trial. And aside from a few words in defense of Xanthippe, where is Stone’s analysis of gender politics?
At the end of his prelude, Stone claims continuity with the classical past as warrant for his inquiry: “It is our yesterday, and we cannot understand ourselves without it.” He belonged to a generation—often a generation of immigrants, largely but not solely Jewish, largely but not solely working-class, largely but not solely leftist—who had a faith in the western canon as a repository of values that should be extended to everyone. As Irving Howe puts it in a leftist defense of the canon roughly contemporary with The Trial of Socrates:
I grew up with the conviction that what Georg Lukacs calls “the classical heritage of mankind” is a precious legacy. It came out of historical circumstances often appalling, filled with injustice and outrage. It was often, in consequence, alloyed with prejudice and flawed sympathies. Still, it was a heritage that had been salvaged from the nightmares, occasionally the glories, of history, and now we would make it “ours,” we who came from poor and working-class families. This “heritage of mankind” (which also includes, of course, Romantic and modernist culture) had been denied to the masses of ordinary people, trained into the stupefaction of accepting, even celebrating, their cultural deprivations. One task of political consciousness was therefore to enable the masses to share in what had been salvaged from the past—the literature, art, music, thought—and thereby to reach an active relation with these. That is why many people, not just socialists but liberals, democrats, and those without political tags, kept struggling for universal education. It was not a given: it had to be won. Often, winning proved to be very hard.
This now sounds as antediluvian as a world in which Jefferson might still be regarded as a culture hero. As the essential meaning of every American institution now stands revealed as slavery and genocide, so the deep significance of the western canon is nothing more than imperialism and patriarchy. And free speech? Merely the alibi of the powerful as they heap abuse on their victims. Better it be regulated by the corporate monopolies in collaboration with the enlightened state.
Every monument has to come down, for each was raised on the backs of the oppressed. Stone’s ambivalent desire to make a case for the prosecution of Socrates in defense of Athenian values subjects him to the same trial; if his book teaches faith in western civilization, he stands in the dock with Socrates, accused by ardent democrats of the same crime.
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