03.04.19 | The State vs. Socrates

Would you choose to die for the sake of principle? If so, what principle(s)?

We will wipe the figurative dust off a few old Greek marble statues and resurrect a discussion some 2,500 years ago, this time through modern eyes. Socrates back then was facing the death penalty. The facts of the case would evoke an eye-roll, even laughter, today (and perhaps back then). The charge: studying things in the sky and below the earth, corrupting the youth through inappropriate questions, and believing in unauthorized gods. Jury: about five hundred random, "non-expert" citizens. Sentence: death by mandated suicide. Rationale: hard to tell. Possible exacerbating circumstances: Athens' recent stinging loss to Sparta; the accuser's (Meletus) demagoguery, and maybe a touch of chutzpah (not a Greek word).

The conversation with his friend Crito centered around that friend's offer of a convenient alternative i.e. skipping out of the jurisdiction altogether to live out his few remaining years in a neighboring city-state. Their ensuing discussion speaks volumes about matters recognizable today e.g. the nature of the social contract, democracy vs. republic, dangers of groupthink, the role of independent thought, identity politics, and the very nature and legitimacy of the law itself.

Socrates did not knowingly break any law and, in fact, argued that membership in a society, with the benefits that implies, impels obedience to authority. Failure to otherwise convince the jury, he reasoned, compelled him to accept its decision, no matter much he and Crito disagreed with the outcome. (Focus article, click here: When Should We Break The Law?) As such, this would seem distinguishable from a case of civil disobedience which suggests an intentional breach of the law in order to effect its change.

We will be joined in our discussion by Spencer Case, C.U. doctorate and lecturer in philosophy and the author of our focus article, as we sort through Socrates' reasoning to ultimately abide by the court's decision (rather than to cut and run). Could the worlds of America today and that of Socrates even recognize each other? We previously discussed how the proliferation of complex laws together with bloated enforcement agencies have created a somewhat bewildering legal environment, broadening the opportunity for selective enforcement (MM 5/7/18). Socrates might have understood that.

But no fancy legal defenses for him -- even in a capital case -- as he was operating on a completely different plane. It is that plane we shall be discussing.

Steve SmithComment