by Xander Snyder and Erik Fogg
In the Atlantic’s April 2017 issue there is a powerful read called “Making Athens Great Again.” It recounts the faltering of Athens with the execution of Socrates then its renewal with Plato’s creation of the Academy. It discusses why a nation with a sense of exceptionalism must include self-criticism and self-questioning to be worthy of itself. It is an article recounting an ancient history that is still relevant.
But it has some problems.
ReConsider actually took on Athens back in January 2016, with our podcast episode, “Demagogues in History...And Today.” We do hope that The Atlantic got to listen to our recounting of Cleon demanding that the Assembly let him “Make Athens Great Again” (sound familiar?). We also hope we were a source of inspiration. More importantly, we think the Atlantic article missed a few things.
The Atlantic tells the tale of a city that turned on its own values when it killed Socrates. The subtitle to the article reads:
“How does a citizen respond when a democracy that prides itself on being exceptional betrays its highest principles? Plato despaired, but he also pointed the way to renewal.”
This suggests that by killing Socrates, Athens turned on what it believed. But is that true?
The author of the piece, Goldstein, spends a great deal of time discussing the Athenians’ sense of exceptionalism and moral superiority. She quotes Pericles (451 BC and 432 BC) a few times, who says that Athens’ conquered enemies should almost be proud to have been defeated by such a worthy opponent. Pre-Socratic Athens had a two-fold principle.
Your life is worth living if you do something extraordinary and worthy of admiration.
With power comes the right to use extraordinary measures to obtain exceptional goals. Might makes right.
With these two principles in hand, Athens controlled and dominated most of Greece. Athens carried the Greek cities to victory and defeated the invading Persian army in an unforgettable example of an underdog’s success. Then, the Athenians rebuilt their city that had been burned to the ground by the invaders and turned it into a symbol of power. It sought to be admired by the world. To quote Pericles, “we shall be the admiration of people now and in the future.”
This belief in power and glory was so great that it is quoted by Thucydides in The History of the Peloponnesian War: “The strong take what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.”
Socrates had a different outlook. He believed that a life should be lived virtuously. That man should seek to be just rather than be glorious. Greatness came in living well, in self-examination, in seeking understanding and loving wisdom.
Socrates’s principles clashed directly with those of Athens. And killing him did not at all run counter to the power-centric principles of Athens, despite Goldstein’s assertion that “the 501 citizen-jurors did not do the institution proud.” Athens was not a liberal democracy. Every year it would exile its most popular citizen out of fear that they would gain too much power. The practice was called ostracism. When generals or admirals failed or showed “cowardice,” they could be fired, exiled, or killed by a majority vote of the Assembly. It was a strange place, one that was always very willing to cut down anyone that didn’t fit in the mold. So long as the Assembly could obtain a majority vote.
Goldstein asks, “What happens when a society, once a model for enlightened progress, threatens to backslide into intolerance and irrationality—with the complicity of many of its own citizens?” But in killing Socrates, there was no backslide. Athens’ commitment to its own power and glory (and its intolerance of anything that might threaten it) had been the name of the game since the victory over Persia. Athens was always willing to sacrifice its own children to cling to that sense of glory. This may well be why it foolishly destroyed itself in the Peloponnesian War.
Killing Socrates was no great surprise--and definitely not a betrayal of Athens’ principles. When we think of Athens, we may think of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, but these men ran contrary to the thinking in Athens before Plato’s Academy. Historical nostalgia is built into modern America's cultural memory of Athens for the role it played in the conception of our own institutions. But America was built on a framework of Republican principles borrowed from Roman, not Athenian, governing structures. This was on purpose since the founders were well aware of the dangers that came from granting absolute power to a single body of individuals where a simple majority decided all outcomes.
Goldstein fails to mention some of the critical persons that brought Athens to its low point. She skips briefly over the Peloponnesian War, which was responsible for destroying Athens' regional power. In the beginning of the essay she writes:
“A war-weary citizenry, raised on democratic exceptionalism but disillusioned by its leaders, wanted to feel great again—a recipe for unease and raw vindictiveness, then as now. The populace had no strongman to turn to, ready with promises that the polis would soon be winning, winning like never before.”
But Athens had already experienced strongmen throughout the Peloponnesian War (which Socrates fought in, by the way--apparently he was adept at holding a line in retreats). The praised Pericles had many opportunities to meet with Sparta to hold off war, but he appealed to Athenian pride and kept the war going. After his death followed Cleon, who rose to power by spewing hatred of the nobility and of Sparta and stirring up anger in Athens. Cleon likely closed the door on the last chance to make peace with Sparta and return to safety and prosperity. After he died in battle against the Spartans, Nicias was able to make a temporary peace. But Alcibiades (ironically, a student of Socrates) whipped up even more Athenian glory-seeking idealism, promising wealth and power in a poorly-hatched Sicilian Expedition.The Expedition ruined Athens economically and militarily, sealing their fate to defeat by Sparta.
Pericles, Cleon and Alcibiades led Athens to its political collapse. The Peloponnesian War ended just five years before Socrates’s death. It left Athens not only humiliated, but politically and economically reduced to a backwater power. Athens’ defeat in the Peloponnesian war crippled its ability to project power in Greece. This paved the way for the rise of the nearly-barbarian Greek Kingdom of Macedon and the historic march east of a young monarch named Alexander.
So, it was not the betrayal of principles that led to Athens’ fall, but its massive defeat in a war that its democratic body voted for. The very same sense of exceptionalism that led Athens into the war carried it into the arms of strongmen and defeat by Sparta. Athens was true to its democratic principles throughout the conflict. It was those very principles that led to its near destruction and Socrates’ execution.
This narrative is important because of the critical role demagogues played in Athens’ fall and turn towards bitterness. Throughout the war, Athens had opportunities to make peace, or at least not shoot (or in this case stab) itself in the foot. The Athenians had become so intoxicated by their own pride and thirst for glory that they forgot their mortality and ignored their vulnerabilities. It was during this time that Socrates ran about embarrassing just about every Athenian big-wig he came across. Here was a man supremely unwelcomed by Athenian elites and whose disappearance would make their lives much easier. Again, his death was neither a surprise nor an indication of “backslide.”
Renewal from Crisis
It is not ironic that Athens’s greatest achievements came from this time. Greece produced beautiful sculpture, art, architecture, and drama. However, its greatest gifts to us are those that came during and after its terrible defeat--rather than its post-Persian War glory.
Socrates’ gadfly-ing stung so much because he started questioning the value of Athenian glory when it was unraveling. Later, Athens no longer had the power to cast itself towards military and political ambition so it turned to thinking. Plato started the Academy, Hippocrates founded western medicine, and Thucydides launched western political theory. All of these men, and the society around them, were shaped by the downfall of Athens and the identity crisis that came with it. Only after decades of giving into strongmen and blind nationalism were the Athenians ready to practice Socratic self-examination.
Had the Athenians not been brought low perhaps these figures that we continue to idolize may never have generated their most important work. Here lies a feature of Athenian history that Goldstein misses. Before Socrates, Athens was never all that “great”--at least, it was still far away from the heights it achieved. Athens was rich, beautiful, and cultured, but many other cities during and before its time were as well. The most incredible gifts that Athens gave us came only after it hit rock bottom. The principles that we admire from Socrates and Plato were not “betrayed” at his death: their seeds had just then been planted.
What Goldstein describes as Athenian greatness - the elevation of critical thinking as a way of evaluating purpose and ethical intuitions - did not end with Socrates. Rather, it was in a state of backslide that Socrates founded the line of philosophical inquiry. This socratic method then became the foundational element of Western civilization and thought.