A thing is not necessarily true because a man dies for it.Oscar Wilde
There are not many philosophers that I can say I hate, but I hate Plato. And that loathing gets more intense the older I get. Whenever someone tells me they love Plato or quote “the unexamined life is not worth living” or some other treacle, I roll my eyes internally. (Though I often quote Plato sarcastically, like I did in my birthday post.) In fact, I think one of the best things about Aristotle is that he was part of this intellectual legacy and rejected substantially all of it for something much more sane and mature.
I first encountered the works of Plato in high school. My Honors and AP English teachers were a married couple – two well-meaning and likable hippies who, like most Baby Boomer academics, never quite left the late 1960s behind. They tried to introduce their students to the ideas of some of the most famous philosophers – Plato, Nietzsche, Machiavelli, and others. They left out the ones that ran counter to their own narratives about the world (I can’t remember them ever talking about Aristotle or Kant) and Machiavelli was only presented as a foil to their favorites, as the worldview of greedy and manipulative capitalist operators. Political and cultural bias aside, I genuinely enjoyed these conversations. I found myself captain of the debate team.
But it wasn’t until college that I systematically worked my through Plato’s dialogues.
Every instructor I have ever had gushed over the figure of Socrates as he is presented by Plato in his dialogues. I think his appeal is less about the genius of the Socratic method of instruction – which consists of letting your interlocutors nuke their own beliefs through persistent questioning – than the perceived personal risk of education as a human project.
Most academics share the pretension of journalists that their work is important, necessary, and above all, dangerous. They are card-carrying members of the “establishment” in our society, bullies who are over-confident in their own ability to interpret and judge cultural phenomena and often stifle dissent. “You would not believe x / like y / trust z if you were educated.” But in their minds, they are martyrs, people who will gladly sacrifice everything for the sake of telling the truth. Except they generally have tenure and an upper-middle class lifestyle. They aren’t sacrificing jack. Trump’s going to put them in a concentration camp any minute, you know.
Fawning over Plato’s account of Socrates’ execution for impiety and corrupting the youth is the apogee of this delusion. He is a prime example of the risks posed for thinking dangerously, attracting the attention of a state made vulnerable by courageous gadflies.
As an adult, when I peruse Plato’s works, I am overcome by the nihilism and the anti-democratic sentiment behind it all. I am obviously not going to argue that Socrates deserved to die for his teachings. But the hero worship surrounding Socrates as an ancient public figure is utterly bizarre. And the influence of these negative traits on western pedagogy is evident in the nihilism and anti-democratic sentiments of western societies’ self-appointed and self-credentialed elites. It’s also reflected in the destructiveness and tendency toward sabotage of urban environments, which are populated by youth raised according to Plato’s philosophical worldviews in some manifestation or another.
One thing my teachers along the way never answered with any intellectual honesty is why Socrates’ peers despised him to the point of wishing him to die. As an avid reader of history, I now understand how flat-out factually incorrect many of their explanations were. It’s somewhat fascinating that they ever tell students this stuff in the first place.
In their minds, Socrates is not unlike Galileo or any other historical figure who suffered extreme persecution by the Man for daring to introduce new ideas. His notion of having a conscience was something alien to Athenian society, which still cloaked itself in primitive superstitions. (Stoic philosophy must be super confusing to them.) And the “corrupting the youth” charge was merely an extension of that, prompting students to question Athenian society’s closely-held beliefs.
In retrospect, all of this is a pretty childish and naive understanding of what was at stake in Socrates’ death. And, ironically, if you spend five minutes looking at the Twitter feeds of professional academics in contemporary America egging on rioters over the past several days, you understand the contempt Socrates was greeted with in Athens. When you hear parents nowadays telling their children there is no fucking way they are going to pay a quarter of a million dollars (or more) for them to study the humanities in college so they can become some raging socialist brat living in the basement who might ultimately be charged with terrorism for throwing a Molotov cocktail into a crowded police car, you understand the trial of Socrates.
Nihilism is not a trait that an intellectually functional society entertains or tolerates for long. Not in Athens and not in the United States.
Socrates was executed in 399 BC. This was on the tail of a profoundly bleak time for the people of Athens, and Socrates and his teachings played a central role in how that came to be.
Sparta defeated Athens in the Peloponnesian War in 404 BC, at which point the Thirty Tyrants were installed to govern the city-state. The Thirty Tyrants were a pro-Spartan oligarchy who were brutal in the way they treated ordinary Athenians. Although the Thirty were only in power for 8 months, they were responsible for butchering 5% of Athens’ population and eliminating substantially all of Athenian citizens’ civil rights. Only select loyalists were allowed to carry weapons, entitled to a jury trial (one can imagine how those would proceed in such a political climate), or even live in the city proper.
So what is the connection to Socrates? Several of the Thirty Tyrants responsible for this reign of terror were his students, steeped in his nihilism and the sense that only a select few people are sufficiently enlightened to govern that pervades Plato’s Republic – a notion as far away from democracy in spirit as you can get.
Critias, the ringleader of the Thirty was a pupil of Socrates and Plato’s cousin, and is frequently likened to Robespierre of the French Revolution for his singular lack of interest in human life and Clockwork Orange-ish penchant for ultra-violence. He murdered many financially well-off Athenian citizens for the sole purpose of redistributing their wealth among the Thirty. Critias had his own little Stasi patrolling Athens and physically beating citizens into compliance with their whims. Anyone who rose up against the regime was exiled.
It was an organized group of exiles who overthrew the Thirty in 403 BC. When Socrates was executed, Athens was struggling with its own reconstruction from the mayhem his students had caused. Needless to say, Plato – who was in his early twenties during the reign of the Thirty, and describes it like someone talking about their childhood – propagandizes this period in his works. With a little historical context, the opening passages of The Republic seem like a thoroughly modern form of gaslighting. Our ideas are dangerous because of whom we offend, not because of what we do. Sound familiar?
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the teachings of Socrates and what his students “grew up” to be. It was all fun and games watching Socrates tear down public institutions that had turned Athens into one of the wealthiest and most literate societies in human history, as he is caricatured as a colossal horse’s ass in Aristophanes – not unlike how the professors obsessed with identity politics are caricatured in the current political moment for their increasingly irrational observations about social justice. But his worldview was indeed “dangerous,” not because of anything Socrates ever did directly, but because of the work of his proteges.
In Athens, the citizens looked around and put higher education on trial. In the US, higher education is going to have some sort of cultural reckoning too. It won’t involve hemlock, but it probably will send some specific institutions on to their great reward.
You are judged as a parent by what your children become. There is literally no other metric. If your kids don’t have skills, if your kids can’t take care of themselves, then you objectively were not a good parent. You are likewise judged as a teacher by what your students become. If your students turn into adults that want to destroy civil society, you impressed upon them some profoundly mistaken ideas. You might as well have tossed the Molotov cocktail into the police car yourself. And that’s why Plato sucks.