The Evil Socrates

Originally published at kuro5hin.org on July 13th, 2005. A couple of typos fixed on July 19th.

I

Meletus: To conclude, it is really very simple. Socrates here believes that reason is the ultimate standard of everything. But as I have tried to show, there are limits to its acceptable use. We are first and foremost ethical beings, and our sense of morality must be the ultimate standard. Sometimes we may not be able to defend our sense of morality in a rational way, but that is not a problem because rationality is not as important as morality. In a moral community, asserting the correct moral claim is enough.

Socrates: If that is the crime, I am guilty. It is true that I believe in these things, and I should therefore be handed the appropriate sentence. But since I have been given the opportunity to talk to you, I will. Maybe I can explain why I believe what I believe. And if I can, maybe you will decide that I do not deserve a harsh punishment.

To begin with, I should make a clarification: strictly speaking, I do not believe rationality is superior to an educated sense of morality. Instead I claim that an educated sense of morality is necessarily guided by the principles of rationality. Of course we should be ethical, but really to be ethical means to be rational as well. The two are not in conflict.

Rationality in turn is nothing but the tendency to be persuaded by the best arguments that have been presented. Presenting an argument means asserting a claim and then presenting reasons to believe that this claim is correct. In a rational community, the winner of a debate is the person who is able to present the best arguments.

Meletus: That all sounds very nice, apart from one thing. Surely you realize, Socrates, that a rational community is not always an ethical community. The only thing required to corrupt a rational community is a very clever but less than virtuous person with an ability to defend immoral doctrines with good arguments. Since he is so talented in philosophy and public speech, everyone will naturally be persuaded to believe in what he says. But of course this does not make his actions any less immoral.

And this is precisely what we have here. We Athenians appreciate philosophy, and strive to be a rational community. This is a proud tradition in our city. But now an admittedly excellent philosopher has appeared to abuse this tradition and corrupt us.

Socrates: Why, I am proud to be called an excellent philosopher, although I am not sure I deserve the compliment. But I reject the accusation: I never tried to corrupt anyone, and as far as I know I never did. If I cannot claim to have benefited anyone to any great extent, at least I believe my actions are quite harmless.

In fact it is difficult even to understand how I could have corrupted anyone. Let us assume for the sake of argument that I am indeed an excellent philosopher. But if I am, then I have had to become one; nobody is a philosopher at birth. Learning philosophy is a process of education in which one does not simply acquire a new skill to use for whatever purpose. Becoming a philosopher means changing in a profound way as a person. As one slowly approaches the love of wisdom, one begins to see more clearly the truths of morality as well. And becoming acquainted with these truths is to live according to them, to be a virtuous person. Thus my opponent is confused: I can not be both a good philosopher and a less than virtuous person.

II

Socrates: I am saddened by the verdict you have reached. It did not surprise me, and I am not as unhappy to be found guilty as I am about something else. Can you see, Athenians, where your desire to punish me has led you? You have broken with our tradition of free public speech. You have given up the respect we have always had for excellent speakers. And above all, you have rejected rationality itself. This is what makes me sad, not whatever the punishment you feel I deserve.

You ask me to suggest an appropriate punishment for myself. But what can I say? When you found me guilty despite admitting that reason is on my side, it appears you rejected the only way of arguing I know. I have always tried to be a rational man. And according even to you, I have had better success in this than anyone else in our city. But what good will that do me now that rationality is no longer considered necessary?

I accept any punishment you find appropriate. Seeing that it does not matter whether a man is rational or not, I suggest you do not punish me as a rational man—but merely as a man.

III

Socrates: I would not like to repeat myself, but I am afraid I will. Please be patient with me. As I said, I am prepared to accept any punishment. And so I should not and will not flinch even now that that punishment turns out to be death.

If your intention was to hurt me, you have failed. I am an old man with not much life ahead of me anyway, so the prospect of losing what little I had left does not intimidate me. Even if you believe that pain is a bad thing, mere death is hardly a very painful thing. The fact that you did not condemn me to something more obviously bad leads me to believe that you do not want to hurt me as much as you want simply to remove me. It seems you have succeeded.

Of course you know that I have never had to work very hard to find an audience. I find that youths are eager to listen to me speak and debate. I do not believe they do this because I am particularly interesting as a man. Instead, there is something in debate itself they find interesting. This is what guarantees that there will be philosophers for so long as there will be men.

I predict that rationality will eventually prevail and replace irrational superstition. This will not happen quickly, because philosophy is so difficult. But after time, and after generations of able thinkers, culture will have evolved so that people like you will have to explain yourselves in front of people like me. The great philosophers of the future will be able to present arguments superior to those of anyone else, and therefore in a rational community they will be in a position to devise the principles according to which societies will be organized. Rational people will be persuaded by their arguments, and irrational people will be unable to present better ones. Even if an irrational person questions the virtue of the philosophers, he will just have to trust them, because, as I have already said, a philosopher is necessarily virtuous.

In short, you may kill me, but you cannot do away with the inherent temptation of philosophy. Depending on how you look at it, this can be either a curse or a blessing. I would of course argue that it is a blessing. But from your perspective philosophy is more likely to appear a curse.