Men of Athens, I honor and love you; but I shall obey the god rather than you...

In 399 BCE Socrates and a small band of his friends gathered in a prison cell to discuss philosophy for the final time. One month previous, an Athenian court had charged Socrates with three crimes: failure to acknowledge the city’s gods; the creation of new ones; and corruption of the youth. A majority of the five-hundred man jury had found him guilty on all counts, and he was sentenced to death. Now, as sunset approached, it was time to carry out that sentence. When the jailer entered the cell carrying the cup of hemlock that would quench the philosopher’s life, most of his comrades could not help but weep for the loss of such a friend. Socrates, however, upbraided them for their histrionics and accepted his cup. He cheerfully drank his death.  Such was the end of Socrates who, as his greatest student Plato writes, “was of all those we have known the best, and also the wisest and most upright.”

I will seek to prove the following three theses: individualism, similar in essence to how we think of it today, was present and  prevalent in ancient Athens; Socrates was the foremost representative of that creed; and, paradoxically, this supreme individualist – Socrates – was put to death by Athens – the most liberal and enlightened city of its age – precisely because of his individualism.

Individualism in Athens

Erich Fromm, the writer and psychoanalyst, has much to say about individualism and its effects on modern man. In his book, Escape From Freedom, Fromm describes not only individualism’s positive, life-affirming aspects, but also the anxiety that grows out of the feeling of alienation which results when society’s individual values apply only to exterior bonds, and not to the interior world of the self. Fromm calls this growth away from oneness with the world toward a knowledge of self and separateness “individuation”;  and it is a process that can be found not only in the personal history of every man as he grows from the womb into adulthood, but also in the social history of mankind. It is the emergence from instinctual beast to thinking man. But this self-awareness has shone forth only during brief moments in history.

Karl Popper, the philosopher of science who also wrote much on sociology and the evils of totalitarianism, recognizes a similar historical process in man’s growth from tribalism, or the closed society, to individualism, or the open society. In tribalism the only value lies in the group or state. It is a mindset where the individual becomes insignificant. Conversely we may define individualism as a trend in valuation where the individual takes precedence over the group. It is the belief that each man is an end in himself, that he is autonomous. Whereas in a collectivist or tribal morality the good is that which is in the interest of a group, tribe, or state, the good of an individualist morality is each person’s separate happiness.

Do we have any evidence that Athenian citizens thought of themselves as individuals rather than as “inseparable parts of a biologic organism”? We certainly do. We can hear this sense of self in the words of Pericles, the famed Athenian statesman:

Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people.  When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law; when it is a question of putting one person before another in positions of public responsibility, what counts is not membership of a particular class, but the actual ability which the man possesses.

The Peloponnesian War, Thucydides

These are the values and ideas that Pericles expresses in his famed funeral oration of 430 BCE at the start of the Peloponnesian War. Even if we grant that Pericles was a career politician prone to exaggeration and rhetoric, this very rhetoric indicates that his words must have expressed ideals that Athenian citizens sought to achieve. Later in his speech Pericles makes his point even clearer: “I declare that in my opinion each single one of our citizens, in all the manifold aspects of life, is able to show himself the rightful lord and owner of his own person, and do this, moreover, with exceptional grace and exceptional versatility. [Italics mine]” Can there be a greater declaration of individualism than this?

Herodotus, considered by many to be the father of history, wrote in the mid-5th century BCE about Athens’ heroics in the great Persian War that took place a generation before he was born. He relates that the Spartans had sent emissaries to their ally Athens in fear that the Athenians would join the vastly superior forces of the Persians. They begged their fellow Greeks to remain true to their homeland and stay in the fight, but the Athenians only took the Spartans’ insinuation as an insult. “We know as well as you do that the Persian strength is many times greater than our own…Nevertheless, such is our love of freedom, that we will defend ourselves in whatever way we can.”

In the Histories, Herodotus speaks of freedom or liberty thirty-one times. He considers the value so basic that he even attributes it to the Egyptians of ancient times. Writing of a king he calls Sesostris, Herodotus says that in subjugating the nations in his path, this king respected those peoples who fought valiantly for their freedom and erected pillars in his and their honor; but “if a town fell easily into his hands without a struggle, he made an addition to the inscription on the pillar… he added a picture of a woman’s genitals, meaning to show that the people of the town were no braver than women.”

Twice during the Peloponnesian War, in 411 and 404 BCE, the democracy was temporarily toppled and replaced by an oligarchy. In speaking of these brief coups, both Thucydides, the famed historian remembered for his realism and rejection of superstition, and Xenophon, the aristocrat turned mercenary, as well as friend and possible student of Socrates, wrote about the long-standing traditions of freedom and self-rule in Athens. Writing of the oligarchy of 411, Thucydides says: “For it was no easy matter about 100 years after the expulsion of the tyrants to deprive the Athenian people of its liberty – a people not only unused to subjection itself, but, for more than half of this time, accustomed to exercise power over others.”

And Xenophon has Critias, the leader of the Thirty Tyrants who briefly seized power after Athens’ defeat by Sparta, say this about Athens: “Not only do we have a larger population than any other Greek city, but the citizens here have been bred up on liberty for far too long.” Not only had Athenian citizens lived by an individualist creed, but they had done so for quite some time.

According to Popper, Western civilization began with the Greeks. They were the first to break free from the chains of tribalism to humanitarianism, or, as we are calling it, individualism. “Individualism, perhaps even more than equalitarianism, was a stronghold in the defenses of the new humanitarian creed. The emancipation of the individual was indeed the great spiritual revolution which had led to the breakdown of tribalism and to the rise of democracy.”

The pinnacle of this spiritual revolution occurred in the generation that lived just before and during the Peloponnesian War, a group of men that Popper calls the “Great Generation”. These included Pericles, the great democratic statesman, and Herodotus, the writer who glorified the democratic credo in his Histories. They included the materialist philosopher Democritus of Abdera, who believed that “every man is a little world of his own” and that the good citizen is he who “considers the whole world his fatherland”; the iconoclastic tragic playwright Euripides, who both questioned the religion of his day and displayed the horrors of war on stage;  the skeptical comic playwright Aristophanes who saw no subject so sacred that he could not poke fun at it; sophists like Protagoras who believed that “man is the measure of all things”; and Gorgias who developed the fundamental tenets of anti-slavery and anti-nationalism.

By the end of the 5th century BCE, freedom and self-assertion had become indispensable values to the Greeks, and especially to the Athenians. Men were now glorified not only as tribal heroes ​but as autonomous. Thinking individuals. And just at this peak of tolerance and humanitarianism, Socrates, perhaps the greatest representative of this greatest generation, was killed for his individualism.

Socrates as Individualist

The prosecution at Socrates’ trial could have used the following words to validate their charge that Socrates was corrupting the youth:

When [a man] is refuted in argument, and when that has happened to him many times and on many different grounds, he is driven to think that there’s no difference between honorable and disgraceful, and so on with all other values, like right and good, that he used to revere… when he’s lost any respect or feeling for his former beliefs but not yet found the truth, where is he likely to turn? …And so we shall see him become a rebel instead of a conformer.

The Republic, Plato

No enemy of Socrates could have stated the case against him any better,​ yet we see these words spring from Socrates’ own mouth in Plato’s Republic.

Before we can understand this contradiction, we must first examine the sources available that tell of Socrates’ life and beliefs. Socrates never wrote anything himself, but there seems to have been a plethora of dialogues written by Socrates’ disciples after his trial and execution. Fragments from one of these, written by Antisthenes, have survived, and in the annals of ancient historians can be found ambiguous clues to the existence of many others. But only two authors’ works have survived in full into the present day: those of Plato and Xenophon.

The Socrates of Xenophon is hardly a philosopher.  He walks about town conversing with his fellow Athenians with a supreme confidence in the knowledge he has accumulated. Rarely do we find in Xenophon the Socratic questioning with which we are so familiar. “Xenophon’s Socrates is plainly more interested in conclusions than in the process of reaching them.” (Robin Waterfield) His morality is nothing new or shocking. For the most part, ​Xenophon’s Socrates spouts the aristocratic morality of his day.

His idea of justice, so important in the works of Plato, is the echo of every Athenian citizen: “to do good to one’s friends, and do harm to one’s enemies.” In Xenophon’s Apology, instead of giving moral integrity as his reason for not backing down at his trial, Socrates tells his friends that he is old and that it is better he should die at that moment than to suffer the pains of old age and senility. This, however, is not to say that Xenophon’s Socrates lacks charm. In his questioning of the wealthy courtesan Theodote, and in the picturesque drinking party of the Symposium, we find the humorist and ironist we have all grown to love. But the duration and quality of Xenophon’s relationship to Socrates is uncertain, and it is clear that he lacks the subtlety of mind, and perhaps the desire, to delve into the depths of philosophy. If we hope to understand the historical Socrates we must look to Plato.

Plato had a longstanding relationship with Socrates, and he was present at his trial. From Socrates’ short association with Plato’s uncle Critias, and the longer friendship with his older cousin Charmides, Socrates appears to have been a friend of Plato’s family for some time. The question becomes, “Where in Plato’s dialogs does Socrates end and Plato begin?” How much can we rely on Plato to mirror the precepts of his teacher?

It is generally agreed that Plato’s dialogs may be split into three periods: the Early, Middle, and Late periods. In the Early period Plato tries to represent Socrates as he was, and this includes the Apology, Euthyphro, Crito, and Gorgias. During the Middle Period, Plato’s own thought begins to flower, and he uses Socrates as his mouthpiece. This period includes the Symposium, Phaedo, and The Republic. Finally, in the Late Period, Plato drops Socrates as his protagonist altogether, and the philosopher’s last work, The Laws, is especially representative of this trend.

Since Socrates is only represented in Plato’s Early and Middle periods, we will concentrate on these; and while there are many differences between these two representations of “Socrates”, we will only focus on those that are pertinent to his individualism.

The first major difference between the Socrates of Plato’s early and later works is​ on his conception of the “soul”. Before Socrates, ​there is no conception of the soul in Greek philosophy or religion. At most, when a person died, it was thought that his shade would wander aimlessly in the caverns of Hades for eternity. For Socrates, however, the soul is something within us, a thing special and valuable that encapsulates our personality and moral nature. For the Socrates of the early dialogs, “our soul is our self – whatever that might turn out to be. It is the ‘I’ of psychological function and moral imputation – the ‘I’ in ‘I feel, I think, I know, I act.’”

But this is a far cry from the modern notion of soul that has come down to us from our Christian heritage; it is a far cry from that same notion that the early Christian fathers hijacked from the middle dialogues of Plato himself.  Listen to the Socrates of the Phaedo as he councils his disciples:

Answer me then: what is it that, present in a body, makes it living?

– A soul.

Whatever the soul occupies, it always brings life to it?

–  Of course.

Is there, or is there not, an opposite to life?

–  There is: death.

So the soul will never admit the opposite of that which it brings along, as we agree from what has been said?

–  Most certainly.

[V]ery well, what do we call that which does not admit death?

–  Deathless.

So we have proved that the soul is deathless.

Phaedo, Plato

Nowhere in Plato’s early works does Socrates make such a claim. The best he can do in the Apology is to counsel that one should not fear death because no one knows what lies on the other side; and if it is just an eternal sleep, then so much the better. Socrates’ idea of soul had no metaphysical or otherworldly connotation. It was a moral appeal that spoke to our autonomous nature and showed the individual value inherent in us all.

Wrapped up in this mystery of the soul is the difference between Socrates’ and Plato’s conception of the essence of things. Everywhere in the early dialogs we find Socrates asking the same questions: What is piety? What is justice? What is virtue? Socrates believed that everyone has an incomplete knowledge of what these terms mean, even he; but he was certain that once complete knowledge could be found, men would live happier, fuller lives.

Socrates called these complete definitions the “essence” of a thing, or the “form” of a thing. But in Plato’s later works we get a vastly different view of these “Forms”. To Plato, ​they are no longer definitions but existents that reside outside of space and time. They are the unchanging perfection out of which all the sensible objects around us take an incomplete part. No table is truly a table. Each empirical table is an imperfect copy of the metaphysical form “Table,” of which only the philosopher may get a glimpse. This dichotomy between the perfect and the sensible has serious consequences in Plato’s philosophy as Gregory Vlastos, a scholar who has spent much effort in the disentanglement of Socrates from Plato, so eloquently expresses:

The ontology of non-sensible, eternal, incorporeal, self-existent, contemplable Forms, and of their anthropological correlate, the invisible, immortal, incorporeal, transmigrating soul, has far-reaching​ implications for the mind and for the heart. In the heart, it evokes the sense of alienation from “this” world where the body lives, a nostalgia for a lost paradise in that “other” world from which the soul has come, and to which it longs to return. In the mind, it arouses a hunger for the kind of knowledge which cannot be satisfied by investigating the physical world.

Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher, Gregory Vlastos

One can hardly imagine an outlook more different from that of Socrates. Vlastos describes the peripatetic philosopher as one who ambles every day around the agora (or marketplace), barefoot, wearing only one tunic for the year. Socrates, because he cares little for money, or reputation, or anything else other than virtue or wisdom, is certainly unworldly. But he is not otherworldly, for he does not seek mystical union with a Being he can never know or understand. Vlastos again: “For Socrates reality – real knowledge, real virtue, real happiness – is in the world in which he lives… The passionate certainties of his life are in the here and now.”

The next area of contention between Socrates and Plato is in the realm of knowledge and teaching. At his trial, the search for knowledge is uppermost in Socrates’ defense: “The greatest good for man is to fashion arguments each day about virtue and the other things you hear me discussing when I examine myself and others… the unexamined life is not for man worth living.” (The Apology) Socrates believed that people do wrong only through ignorance; for him, ​the search for knowledge was vital to happiness and harmony. Socrates, unlike the Sophists, rejected the idea that virtue could be taught. While a teacher may provide assistance to his students, an individual could find truth only through relentless self-examination, and it was necessary that each person find truth on his own.

The word “philosopher” is derived from the Greek words “lover of wisdom”. For Socrates, to love, to desire, is to seek. Those with knowledge and wisdom cannot be philosophers, nor can those who scorn or flee from it; thus, for Socrates, only gods and idiots are banned from philosophy. But he welcomes and applauds anyone who honestly seeks wisdom. “For you see that our argument now concerns what even a man of scant intelligence must needs be in utmost earnestness about, namely, the way one ought to live.” (Gorgias)

Not so with Plato: “Philosophy should be wooed by true men, not bastards.” It is incredible to find these words leaving the lips of the Republic‘s Socrates. Plato’s philosopher is no longer the humble man who is aware of his limitations and knows “only that he knows nothing.” He is the Philosopher King. In Plato’s later works, no longer do we find the modest seeker, but the proud possessor of truth. The Philosopher does not only hold the key to knowledge, but he has a monopoly on it. And in Plato’s ideal state, no one beneath the philosopher king will be allowed to question that authority. Vlastos again: “Plato does not leave this as a matter of inference. He insists that critical discussion of the basic concepts of morality is prohibitively risky for the populace at large, and not only for them – even for the philosophers-to-be prior to the completion of mathematics.” There can be no greater clash between two sets of beliefs. The contrast between Socrates and Plato is that between a rational individualist and a totalitarian demi-god.

The final difference we shall discuss is Socrates’ and Plato’s idea of politics. I.F. Stone, the journalist-turned-Greek-scholar at age seventy, writes in The Trial of Socrates: “[Socrates] and his disciples saw the human community as a herd that had to be ruled by a king or kings, as sheep by a shepherd. The Athenians, on the other hand, believed that man was a ‘political animal’… endowed with reason… and thus capable of governing himself in a polis.” However, Stone is missing the vital difference between the Socrates of the early dialogs and that of the later.

In dealing with Plato, however, he knows his man. Note the following quote from the Republic: “It would be a sin either for mating or anything else in a truly happy society to take place without regulation.” Plato’s feelings about his fellow men are made quite transparent in his last work, The Laws: “[T]hey will live the life that their own nature demands, puppets that they are, mostly, and hardly real at all.” For Plato, the individual has nothing to do with politics.  Justice is a well-oiled state where the cogs don’t matter.

According to Popper’s diagnosis of Plato, the inherent imperfection of the individual is exactly that which requires the city-state to be placed higher in value. Only *the State* can be self-sufficient and perfect. This is the exact opposite of our definition of individualism. Socrates would never have survived seventy years had he lived in either of Plato’s hypothetical city-states described in the Republic and The Laws.

Socrates had no political agenda. He was a critic of his democratic government, as the best democrats often are, but he makes it clear by both his actions and his words that he believed Athens was the best government in existence during his lifetime. At his trial, Socrates does not offer exile as a viable penalty for his crimes; when his friend Crito comes to his jail cell to offer escape to another country, Socrates refuses and asks his friend what he would do in Thessaly when he got there, other than eat, “as if I’d exiled myself for a banquet.” Socrates is much more interested in individual morality than politics, and​ he knows that he knows too little to be developing the perfect government. Richard Kraut, a political and philosophical scholar, sums up what Socrates might have told his disciples had they wished to pursue a career in politics:

If you want to pursue your own best interest, then you must try to become as virtuous as possible. And to do this, you must try to acquire knowledge of the virtues. But the only way to acquire moral knowledge – though of course this is not a method that guarantees success or even progress – is to discuss moral questions every day, as I do. Now, if you enter a political career you will have too little time, or none at all, to care for your own souls… So give up your political ambitions, turn yourselves into moral experts, and then, if you so choose, you can occupy yourselves with politics. Having completed the project of becoming a virtuous person, you can turn to the far less important task…

Socrates and the State, Richard Kraut

It is clear that the individual was of supreme importance to Socrates in his search for wisdom, and that the philosopher has a place in that great humanitarian generation of Golden Age Greece. But Socrates goes further than any of his peers. He realizes that there are different levels of freedom. There is freedom from the outward restrictions of the state and from the insatiable desires of the criminal, and these topics were very much in the Athenian air. But there is another freedom which is often overlooked by the most intelligent of people: freedom from false belief and self-deceit. We are, all of us, enchained by the various assumptions and axioms that we have inherited from our families, our cultures, our infirmities. The only way to break free from these chains is to examine everything, from the most basic, to the most sacred.

Karl Popper again:

[Socrates] demanded that individualism should not be merely the dissolution of tribalism, but that the individual should prove worthy of his liberation. This is why he insisted that man is not merely a piece of flesh – a body. There is more in man, a divine spark, reason… It is your reason that makes you human; that enables you to be more than a mere bundle of desires and wishes; that makes you a self-sufficient individual and entitles you to claim that you are an end in yourself.  

The Open Society and Its Enemies, Karl Popper
The Clash of Socrates and Athens

If Socrates had been the foremost proponent of this individualist humanitarianism, and if Athens had been the most democratic and enlightened city of its age, why did a conflict arise between the two? Before we can answer this question we must first examine the nature of the Athenian democracy.

Athens was an absolute democracy. Every one of the city-state’s citizens that could make it to the monthly Assembly meetings had a chance to discuss and vote on all laws and proposals. The idea of free speech was vital to the workings of such a state, and, for the Athenians, such freedom was the essential difference between democracy and tyranny. In his philological investigations, Stone found four words for free speech in the Attic dialect, more than in any language, ancient or modern. And for Euripides, Athens’ last great tragic playwright, true liberty is “when free-born​ men, having to advise the public, may speak free.” But there is one major difference between Athenian freedom and our modern conception of the term. James Colaiaco explains:

Athenian liberties were not founded on what were later called natural rights, existing anterior to the state, but were acquired through active participation in the public realm – the Assembly, law courts, and agora – the realm of speech and reason, discussion and persuasion.  The purpose of Athenian law was not to guarantee rights but to preserve the polis.

Socrates Against Athens, James Colaiaco

The Athenians had no Bill of Rights. Freedoms existed because of an absence of restrictive law, and those freedoms could be quashed whenever an individual was thought to be a threat to the polis. Despite numerous advocates to the contrary, the state remained primary to the individual in ancient Athens.

The charges levied against Socrates were vague, but they came down to two crimes: impiety and corruption of the youth. To our modern ears, the existence of such crimes sounds like blasphemy against our most sacred democratic values; but to the men of 5th century BCE Athens, such acts were considered treason against the state. Even so, why did they go after Socrates at this particular time? Nothing about Socrates’ actions or lifestyle had changed: he still walked the agora every day, drawing crowds with his debates and examinations of others; he still questioned the legitimacy of the flawed, Homeric conception of the gods, though he dutifully continued to make the proper daily sacrifices. At age seventy, with not much life left to live, why did Socrates’ prosecutors bother to take the philosopher to trial after so much time? To understand this, we must place Socrates’ trial in its proper historical context.

By 399 BCE, Athens had endured and lost a pan-Hellenic war that lasted some thirty years. Within ten years of Socrates’ execution, Athens had endured three violent revolutions, events Stone calls “political earthquakes”, that shook the city’s security and created in its citizens a tremendous feeling of anxiety. The first was an oligarchic revolution of four hundred men that lasted four months in 411; the second was the Spartan puppet-government of the Thirty Tyrants that lasted eight months in 404 at the end of the Peloponnesian War.  While brief, each of these coups turned into a bloodbath as both sides, the democrats and the oligarchs, sought to get and keep the upper hand. The third “earthquake” occurred in 401 when the remnants of the oligarchic movement tried and failed to topple the democracy for a third time. By the time of Socrates’ trial, the democratic government had regained its strength, but its citizens were still fearful of any threat against their security and their traditions.

Athens had witnessed the corrosion of its values by violence, plague, and revolution, and the average citizen was not about to sit by and watch as Socrates sowed the seeds of future instability with his reckless teachings. Many people around him saw Socrates’ questioning of traditional values as destructive when he failed to offer any positive doctrine to take their place. Even Callicles, Plato’s representative of hedonism and realpolitik in the Gorgias, is taken aback by Socrates’ views: “If you are in earnest and what you say is really true, our human life would be turned upside down. We would be doing exactly the opposite, it seems, of what we should.” The Athenian citizens simply wanted peace. They wished to be left alone to go about their daily activities; they wanted to enjoy their festivals and make the sacrifices to their gods that their forefathers had made before them. But more than anything, the Athenians wanted a rest from the critical thinking that Socrates and the Great Generation had thrust upon them – a questioning of values that many thought had led to the fall of their city.  But Socrates refused to grant them their wish. This is how he describes himself to the jurors at his trial:

[I am] a man who – if I may put it a bit absurdly – has been fastened as it were to the City by the God as, so to speak, to a large and well-bred horse, a horse grown sluggish because of its size and in need of being roused by a kind of gadfly. Just so, I think, the God has fastened me to the City. I rouse you. I persuade you. I upbraid you. I never stop lighting on each one of you, everywhere, all day long.

The Apology, Plato

When Socrates placed his search for truth and self-discovery above the traditions and values of his city, he became a threat to the safety and sanity of his peers. And the Athenians, not wishing to be roused from their slumber, swished the city’s collective tail and crushed the gadfly underfoot​.

The trial and execution of Socrates is one of history’s most tragic episodes, and it is a tremendous black mark on the legacy of an otherwise great city. It is hard to read Plato’s Apology or Phaedo without brushing a few tears from one’s eyes. Solon, the great Athenian lawmaker of the 6th century BCE, said, “Look to the end no matter what it is you are considering. Often enough God gives a man a glimpse of happiness, and then utterly ruins him.” But if we look at Socrates in his final living hours, we see all the markings of a happy man: he was surrounded by friends and family; revered for his honesty and integrity; confident in his never committing an unjust act against another. His students and disciples wrote about him and his beliefs for years after his death, and 2400 years later, the name Socrates is still a rallying​ cry that inspires heroic individualism and uncompromising integrity.

In conclusion, let us leave with these parting words from Gregory Vlastos, where he describes how this happiness is possible, not only to Socrates, but to every man who pursues that same vision of truth and integrity:

If you say that virtue matters more for your own happiness than does everything else put together, if this is what you say and what you mean – it is for real, not just talk – what is there to be wondered at if the loss of everything else for virtue’s sake leaves you light-hearted, cheerful?  If you believe what Socrates does, you hold the secret of your happiness in your own hands.  Nothing the world can do to you can make you unhappy.

Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher, Gregory Vlastos