Missing Axioms IV – The Passion of Socrates

November 9, 2020

Authentic martyrdom, in contrast to the fanatic sacrifice which arises from ideological possession, is the emergence of conviction in a lifelong project1. The martyrdom of Socrates diverges from the dictionary conception of the martyr, misinterpreted if used as a mere tool of religious or political symbology. Socrates does not inspire the banner of any specific totalising system of thought. Although Socrates obviously had individual opinions on such things the events leading up to his death are, in a blankly historical evaluation, the simple machinations of Athenian politics in a time of uncertainty. A manifestation of their the need to purge subversive and apparently damaging elements. However, an analysis of the value(s) and implications of the events and dialogues surrounding Socrates’ sentencing and execution constructs a mythology. This mythos projects a conception of virtue onto good-faith dialogue which has had implications for virtually all subsequent thought within (or influenced by) it’s shared canon. The propagation of the mythos of the idea through this familial canon is a testament to Socrates’ orientation toward the principle of his value(s) not only within the limits of life but also beyond this assumptive limit into death.

Socrates, accused of the charges of “impiety” and “corrupting the youth”, stands before a court of his peers. To waste words in defence of the accused would be saying nothing new and also align me with ranks of past-prime university lecturers — whereas I like to think I have a few years in me yet. Contrary to the uncontroversial opinion I argue there is in fact justified case for the accusations. Socrates should be viewed as an edgy contrarian. Whether you take such a judgement positively or negatively probably says more about your personal temperament then anything specific about what the bearded fool did. If viewed without ethical qualification Socrates’ very being is iconoclastic, the charge of impiety depends entirely on which ‘god(s)’ he is expected to submit to. In the eyes of a troubled Athens the inquisitive bohemian would have certainly been a nuisance, incessantly trespassing against comfortable authoritative values leading a virulent inquiry against all foundations of social and personal intuitions. Furthermore, he played a role as propagator, a teacher, mentally kidnapping the sons of Athens and regurgitating them as pesky intellectuals. Here we can draw a parallel between the reaction of the intellectual immune system of the Athenians and the security systems seen in virology. Authoritarian justifications often come with flourishes of moralistic sanitary concern and the approach to transgressive values from an established order is no different. Swift, clean action was needed to crush the virus of Socratic inquiry before the pathogen had opportunity to spread.

Socrates was not accused of a mere denial of god, but rather the purportedly far worse crime of creating his own idols. This accusation alone could be leveraged in the sociocultural context, without qualification, to invoke scandal. However, it must be understood that Socrates’ inquiry and cladisticlly impious questioning, of the nature of the gods stemmed counterintuitively from his curious love of divine concepts and by extension his desperate search for good and evil. This line of thought gives rise to the Euthyphro dilemma2 which is formulated in the first dialogue described by Plato, the essence of which is a philosophical progenitor of both nihilism and missing axioms. Although the dialogue between Socrates and Euthyphro primarily revolves around the nature of the good (pious), where the good is described as “possessing some single character”3. Throughout the discussion are also coded questions relating to the opposite of divinity: impiety. If we apply the same line of questioning against the charges levelled towards Socrates, in order for him to be impious there must also be pious things and for such a charge to be justly brought it must be accused by one who has knowledge of the pious. Are Socrates’ acts impious or are they impious by virtue of the court?

The notion of piety, or the ‘good’, and its opposite: impiety, or, the ‘bad’, in the linguistic context of Socrates’ time is simply a substitute for the nature of human measurement and worth. For every value in human judgement there is encoded within an opposite which instantiates a system of worth. For Socrates, he had always remained committed to his piety and his judgement of value toward the idea as such along with the fruits of its discursive experimentation. This resolve remained unwavering under the looming threat of the mob: “They will surely listen, provided that you seem to be saying something worth hearing”4. However, it needs to be made clear that this judgement was not merely thoughts and discourse for their own sake, or in virtue of themselves, but rather their marriage with action to produce a reasoned, embodied authenticity. This is in contrast with the pontifications of his accusers, who partake in the desecration of their own good-faith: “…when it comes to the truth they’ve said virtually nothing”5. The righteous flourish of the accusers rhetoric is a concealment of their true intentions, they embody a disassociation between their explicit and implicit selves.

Unlike his accusers, Socrates successfully marries the intellect and rhetoric with his intentions and manner. Giving his defence in the same language he has used for “seventy years”, his frankness becoming context-independent and therefore suitable both for the defence of his own life and for daily discourse in his wanderings in the “market place” or “banker’s stalls”6. Socrates manner is consistent and despite the importance of the court he does not dress-up or dress-down his language for the occasion. In this manner Socrates is a single union of principled value(s) in contrast with an Athens merely unified in it’s neuroticism and anxiety, providing collective justification for purging their wisest.

Such irreducible values are both immaterial and priceless. Socrates decided to face the systematised operations of the court with the true purpose of education; not what to know, but how to know. On the practice of proper “teaching” for which he considers a charge of 5 minas, equivalent to the sum of his worldly possessions7, a completely negligible cost8. In the end, having chosen his hill to die on, he calls for his case to be interrogated by the free intellect and not to be determined by their knee-jerk response to the charges and fear for the integrity of the city. However, these calls are in vain, as the mob votes knowing what to think but not how to think.

Socrates’ tells us of the source of his intellectual conscience through the insistence that “some god or divinity” is intervening. This can be seen as the psychic effects of a ‘genuine’ conscience or explained as a delusion which has the flavour of religious experience. Starting in his youth a “sort of voice” that comes to him “discouraging” actions he is about to do and “never encourages”. Socrates claims this obstructed himself from “playing the statesman”, the multi-masked public figure who lurks within the games of explicit deception9. Socrates is his ideal both explicitly and implicitly engaging in a genuine attempt to convince the court, embodying his immaterial value(s) in earthly instantiation — however temporarily.

  1. I want to reiterate that “authentic” is meant in the sense that the agent not only has a collision of their explicit and implicit selves but also that the embodied value(s) aren’t a result of reactionary praxis or group conformity, but are simply existent virtues bought to the fore by predicament.
  2. In it’s simplest terms: “is what is pious loved by the gods because it’s pious, or is it pious because it’s loved by them” – Plato. (2010) The Last Days of Socrates (trans C. Rowe), Penguin, Euthyphro 10a, p.17
  3. Ibid. Euthyphro 5c, p.11
  4. Ibid. Euthyphro 9c, pp.16-17
  5. Ibid. Apology 17a, p.32
  6. Ibid. Apology 17c, pp.32-33
  7. I suspect this would have included his clothing also, philosophy always seems to leave us naked. — Would you rather be clothed? Or a thinker?
  8. Ibid. Apology 20b, p.35
  9. Ibid. Apology 31d, p.50
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