The Fate of Socrates: A Post Modern Study On Plato’s Apology

The title seems very ambitious since I am trying to put an ancient event under the POST Modern/POST structural telescope. When I read Plato’s Apology, and had Socrates have his death penalty, it really did not surprise me. I clearly observed the discursive conflicts between Socrates and the traditional society. In Post modern philosophy, we see humans form different discourses in the society and constitute ‘knowledge’ around such discourses. Each discourse has its own logo-center. Post modern and Post structural philosophy explain the different discourses and the power equation that plays underneath. We also need to understand how power is not ‘possessed’ but ‘exercised’ by different groups of society[Ref: Mitchel Foucault].These statements might sound ‘loosely’ connected with Plato’s Apology at the beginning, but will show their profound impact on Socrates’ case, his defense, societal interplay for certain decisions and other outcomes. Without first going to the finer details into the Plato’s Apology, describing what were the accusations, how Socrates defended, let us focus on some contextual information and information about the societal discourses at that time and how they differ from Socrates.   Before we start our anatomy we have to understand that Socrates was given death penalty in a democratic regime. After the Oligarchs regime, the Athenians hold control back from the Spartans and spend another four years before came to the point where the accusation took place. It was not ‘type’ of rulers or regimes responsible for such accusations against Socrates. It was the ‘difference’ between the ‘value-system’ possessed by the society at that period and the ‘value-system’ possessed and ‘exercised’ by Socrates. The ‘lack’ of ‘Identification’ was another factor(Society has different Identity groups and you need to have one aligned for your survival). Also other human factors like ‘revenge’ did play a crucial role (Revenge was a factor since Socrates stayed in Athens when the Spartans were there that sparked ignition to the returned Athenians).The traditional society decided that they would be better off by sentencing him to death. In order to understand the ‘discursive’ differences between Socrates and the society at that period, we will inspect the accusations one by one and show the rigid boundary of differences and how they affected the decision.  The first type of defense/apology was related to the corruption of young by Socrates. From Plato’s Apology we find, “Socrates is an evil-doer, and a curious person, who searches into things under the earth and in heaven, and he makes the worse appear the better cause; and he teaches the aforesaid doctrines to others.”The word that I will focus here is ‘doctrines’. The society knew Socrates professed different doctrines to his followers. Socrates was trying to ‘profuse’ his discursive thoughts and practices into others. When you try to create new discourse, you evidently see clashes.  If we look at history we see clashes between Galileo and the church, Karl Marx against the Bourgeois. The introduced new discourses of knowledge that created fierce battle with the traditional society which was well settled to its foundation and was not ready to accept the changes.  Now the question will be what was Socrates’ knowledge of discourse that was so different than his society at that period? There were some significant differences. First of all, Socrates did believe that ‘No one can possess knowledge’ and he believed that he himself is nothing but a ‘Mid-wife’ of knowledge and he can not ‘give birth to knowledge’. That was a clear distinction with the  hetoricsle and sophists. There was  well established ‘Identity’ groups in that society which earned their living (equivalent to modern day pay-checks!) with the pretense of being ‘Wise’  and exercising ‘Manifestation’ of knowledge at that period. Socrates isolated himself from such group in his defense. He also admitted that this created alienation for him in the society. The following excerpt from Plato’s Apology will clarify the point.“When I began to talk with him, I could not help thinking that he was not really wise, although he was thought wise by many, and wiser still by himself; and I went and tried to explain to him that he thought himself wise, but was not really wise; and the consequence was that he hated me, and his enmity was shared by several who were present and heard me.”.Secondly, Socrates did believe that the younger generation should be encouraged to improve their ‘virtue’ and it should be the responsibility of the older generation to transform their virtue inside them. On the other hand the society had different view of ‘improvement’. If we notice the following excerpt from Meletus argument, “Tell the judges, then, who is their improver; for you must know, as you have taken the pains to discover their corrupter, and are citing and accusing me before them. Speak, then, and tell the judges who their improver is”. “The laws”-Meletus replied. Socrates continued-“But that, my good sir, is not my meaning. I want to know who the person is, who, in the first place, knows the laws”. “The judges, Socrates, who are present in court”.Surely the view of that society was different than Socrates’. Society was more concerned about the laws and their implementers as the ‘improver’. Here also comes the ‘Power’ factor of the society. Socrates was exercising ‘Power’ on the younger people. It is not the ‘Power’ in a sense of ‘Armor’ or ‘Infantry’, it is the definition of ‘Power’ by Michel Foucault where ‘Power’ can be exercised by anybody in a society. No one can ‘possess’ power exclusively. It is not owned specific rulers or regimes. Socrates was having a profound influence on the younger generation, they were overwhelmed by his wisdom and knowledge and guidance. Socrates was exercising the ‘Power. However, the ‘Laws’ and the ‘Judges’ also need to, tend to exercise the ‘Power’ on the younger people and the  mass at the same time. Thus we are having conflicts here. The discussion of Power and its scope is outside of this thesis. But it is important to be aware of this fact that might have profound influence on the judgment.  Another aspect of defense/apology was related to the belief on God. Meletus and the society as well, had the perception that Socrates was an atheist. But in Socrates’ viewpoint, he was ‘Son of God’. Socrates clearly avoided the straight answer here rather he applied logic to prove that he believes in God since he believes in ‘Sons of God’. Religion was a dominant factor for crucifying people in history. Socrates was no different. Religion by its all mean, a very powerful discourse with ‘God’ in its ‘logo-center’. It was expected that Socrates will have this sort of problem in his society, before I started reading Plato’s Apology. It was also typical to attack any doctrine by providing its animosity with religion. Socrates also defended against the claim that he introduced ‘Other Gods than allowed by the states”. The following excerpt will clarify his defense: “And now, Athenians, I am not going to argue for my own sake, as you may think, but for yours, that you may not sin against the God, or lightly reject his boon by condemning me. For if you kill me you will not easily find another like me, who, if I may use such a ludicrous figure of speech, am a sort of gadfly, given to the state by the God; and the state is like a great and noble steed who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires to be stirred into life. I am that gadfly which God has given the state and all day long and in all places am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you. And as you will not easily find another like me, I would advise you to spare me.”  Socrates defended his being very ‘private’ in nature. He explained why he was not public.I like to introduce the ‘Identity clash’ in post modern world that was also prevalent in ancient society. Socrates being very ‘private’ in his activities, he was isolating himself from being a politician of his time, he was not ‘Sophist’ in a sense not even a paid ‘Teacher’ of his time. He was an individual who really did not belong to any identity group at that time. Usually Identity group as a whole exercise power over society. Some examples might include the Feminist’ movement in early 70s, Marxist movement in eighteenth Century. If Socrates did include himself in a specific group he could have survived but as we see in Plato’s Apology, the following excerpt clarifies his distinction, “Someone may wonder why I go about in private, giving advice and busying myself with the concerns of others, but do not venture to come forward in public and advise the state. I will tell you the reason of this. You have often heard me speak of an oracle or sign which comes to me, and is the divinity which Meletus ridicules in the indictment. This sign I have had ever since I was a child. The sign is a voice which comes to me and always forbids me to do something which I am going to do, but never commands me to do anything, and this is what stands in the way of my being a politician. And rightly, as I think. For I am certain, O men of Athens, that if I had engaged in politics, I should have perished long ago and done no good either to you or to myself.”  Socrates had his own view about life. He had his own mission. The society was afraid that he will introduce new doctrine that may destroy the existing doctrines of the society.With involvement of the younger generation, he was gaining ‘Power’. The traditional value system became vulnerable at his presence. So he must be stopped. The death penalty was the attractive option for the society. To get some feel about his mission, let us put the following excerpt from the Plato’s Apology,  “I never wronged another, I will assuredly not wrong myself. I will not say of myself that I deserve any evil, or propose any penalty. Why should I? Because I am afraid of the penalty of death which Meletus proposes? When I do not know whether death is a good or an evil, why should I propose a penalty which would certainly be an evil? Shall I say imprisonment? And why should I live in prison, and be the slave of the magistrates of the year – of the Eleven? Or shall the penalty be a fine, and imprisonment until the fine is paid? There is the same objection. I should have to lie in prison, for money I have none, and I cannot pay. And if I say exile (and this may possibly be the penalty which you will affix), I must indeed be blinded by the love of life if I were to consider that when you, who are my own citizens, cannot endure my discourses and words, and have found them so grievous and odious that you would fain have done with them, others are likely to endure me. No, indeed, men of Athens, that is not very likely. And what a life should I lead, at my age, wandering from city to city, living in ever-changing exile, and always being driven out! For I am quite sure that into whatever place I go, as here so also there, the young men will come to me; and if I drive them away, their elders will drive me out at their desire: and if I let them come, their fathers and friends will drive me out for their sakes.” When I read Plato’s Apology/defense I understood Plato’s view, that he(Socrates) was and honest person  and that he (Plato) seemed to be more authentic than Xenophon(Who was not present in the trial). The difference in the vote counts was not that huge (if some 38 votes were to be added in Socrates favor, he could have won the trial). That did tell us that the society somehow got inspiration from Socrates. The change was definitely there. Socrates himself had vision for such changes in his later statement after he received the death penalty,  “Me you have killed because you wanted to escape the accuser, and not to give an account of your lives. But that will not be as you suppose: far otherwise. For I say that there will be more accusers of you than there are now; accusers whom hitherto I have restrained: and as they are younger they will be more severe with you, and you will be more offended at them. This is the prophecy which I utter before my departure, to the judges who have condemned me.” Almost 2400 years later, after his death, when we are questioned about the justification of Socrates’ defense, I want to raise another issue- Is it justifiable to judge an event in history with modern perspective? History comprises of ‘fictions’ and ‘fragmented-stories’ according to Michel Foucault. The societal discourses delete its own trail, erase its traces. History is not ‘Sequential’ in that sense. We don’t know the entire discourses of that ancient society. When I read Plato’s Apology, when I see the logic that Socrates stated or applied in his argument that makes sense even today. But the fact is, society will always execute its own rules. It comprises of different identity groups and immersed with Power clashes among different identity groups/discourses. One that  survives, comes in to the focus point. The ‘value-system’ exercised by Socrates could not gain enough support for avoiding his death penalty but I believe it did influence the later generation, it enlightened the younger generation of his time from which new value system emerged. As Socrates said,  “The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways – I to die, and you to live. Which is better God only knows.” I want to elaborate further on these statements. First of all, Socrates was well aware of the fact that ‘Death’ will do no harm to him. As it is clear from the following excerpt from Plato’s Apology: “Now if death is like this, I say that to die is gain; for eternity is then only a single night. But if death is the journey to another place, and there, as men say, all the dead are, what good, O my friends and judges, can be greater than this? What would not a man give if he might converse with Orpheus and Musaeus and Hesiod and Homer? Nay, if this be true, let me die again and again”. So the question/concern that Socrates threw for his later generation “I to die, and you to live. Which is better God only knows”-   is purely a Post modern / Post structural concern where individual is unable to judge which value-system will be better for a society. In post modern perspective one can not absolutely determine/nominate a specific discourse, an absolute value system. Socrates was, in my opinion, in a dilemma. In my opinion, he might have immersed in questions like, would he be able to empower his discourse by sacrificing himself or should he let the traditional discourse /society take its turn and run along with that generation of people?    Nearly after 2400 years of his penalty, we still see the problems of the minor Identity groups to push forward their views and getting them accepted in the society. We still have difficulty allowing enough rights/privileges for the Gay and Lesbian groups in our society. Just Imagine how much pain you will have passing a bill for gay or lesbian rights in US congress!  Majority of our society is accustomed to some traditional value. This was similar case for Socrates. We see those conflicts all over in history. To me, Socrates’ departure should be considered as a victory of an individual who had his own agenda, against the traditional system. The great leaders rose from history and created new discourse of knowledge and changed our lives. New value system replaces the old ones, the process continues. That is how we came here in twenty first century. We praise for individualism, freedom for speech and freedom for choosing our life style. We can not simply judge which value system is better than the others. Some times history choose the fairer one, some times history picked the wrong one (The ‘Fairer’ and ‘Wrong’ are context dependent words they don’t have any universal ground). But as of Today, the value system that was exercised by Socrates displays the passion for learning, nourishing virtue in human behavior and practicing morale in higher ground- all align with the modern day value system. Socrates and some of his ideas still co-exist with modern day value systems.  

Plato might view the defense from his own perspective, with his own criteria (Because it is the ‘Reader’ who becomes the ‘Author’ in Post  structural norms and different ‘Reader’ reads different ‘meaning’ from the same text!). But I really tried to stretch-out the entire defense in POST modern and POST structural ground and tried to lay out the justification (or why there could not be any justification!). In my opinion the POST modern interplay (discourses, value system, Identity groups and Identification, logo-centralism) was still there, and Socrates was subjected to this dynamics of the society. As of today, we are still living with this dynamics that once determined Socrates’ fate in 399 BC.


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