Socrates

Xanthippe was not particularly happy about her husband’s lack of interest in wealth and power. He spent his days wandering through the streets, asking questions to anyone he encountered. The problem was that her husband, Socrates, was devoted to something very specific: knowing the truth. He believed, or so he claimed, that he never knew enough. “I know that I know nothing“, he used to say. Socrates was in fact aware that, behind what we think we know, some influences are always hidden. He knew we constantly tell ourselves many truths in order to give some reasons for our actions. Tradition, community, family, friends: we take for granted the values that regulate our relationships, and it is difficult to peel away those wrapping forces that affect our behaviour. It is difficult to strip ourselves of those vague meanings that define us. For example, if we are asked some explanations, we often say: ‘I did it in this way because this is right’. We use words such as right, fair, true, just. But who is right? What is justice? And what ensures us that justice is the thing that we are told it is? These were the sort of philosophical questions that Socrates would ask. And answering Socrates’ questions was hard. Indeed, he took his mission very seriously: the politicians in Athens were deeply corrupted. Some healing was necessary. And beyond his declared ignorance, Socrates was convinced that Athenian misgovernment was the aftermath of unawareness, inattention and lack of inquiry. He wanted to increase understanding, especially among the youth. His mission was then to inquire the human soul, making hypotheses and discussing certainties.

This habit to scrutinise the souls and discover the true motives of human behaviour won him many dislikes. He started to acknowledge, “with regret and with some apprehension“, that he was making enemies. Yet, he insisted. Young people would gather around him, his pupils would start to doubt the traditional beliefs. This was a threat to the political class and to the values that dominated society. Socrates, the source of the threat, had to be removed from the Polis as soon as possible. So it was that in 399 bc he was accused publicly by the tragic poet Meleto, the democratic politician Anito, and the orator Licone. The charges were two: corruption of the youth and rejection of the traditional gods of the Polis. However, even those who accused him, advised him to flee. After all, what they merely cared about was to ensure that their government, founded on questionable customes, was not opposed. Socrates had easy chances to get away with it: even more, his friend Critone had already organised everything to let him escape. Yet, Socrates decided to go through the trial, refusing to acknowledge any guilt. He defended himself against the charges. The startled and worried prosecution sentenced him guilty, with three hundred and sixty out of five hundred votes.

Socrates’ punishment worked in this way: he would receive a notification about when he had to commit suicide. Capital punishment at that time in Athens consisted of a voluntary act, done to relieve the community of one’s negative influence. So it spoke Socrates’ sentence: a month later, he would have to poison himself with hemlock. Socrates accepted the sentence with an unabashed attitude: in fact, according to him, criticising unjust laws did not authorise anyone to break them. In the face of unjust laws, from Socrates’ perspective, we must fight to change them. If we fail, we only need to submit to the laws in order to show their injustice. Indeed, when we fight against injustice, we cannot pull back to our personal advantage or disadvantage. Socrates used to say that serious men do not spend time “calculating the probability of life and death, instead of thinking about whether they have behaved as good or bad men”. Socrates, agreeing to be silenced forever, gave a lecture to his accusers and to all those who think they can get rid of a voice by breaking it. Socrates showed that by remaining faithful to a moral mission, by becoming a role model, there is no silencing that can hold. The accusers believed they were getting rid of Socrates by removing his body and his voice. But they were wrong: his courage and authority brought their mediocrity and malice to light. So much that many people were left shocked by his conviction. And it was thanks to the words of those shocked individuals, among whom Plato, that the dreaded revolutions of politics and morals began and developed.

Silvia Lazzaris