The Trial of Socrates: How One Story Became the Foundation for Right-Wing Political Thought

(Photo: The Imaginative Conservative)

by Sam Lewis – Contributor

The trial and subsequent death of Socrates is one of the most important events in Classical History. It is considered by some to the be marker of the end of the ‘golden age’ of Athenian society and is a moment covered by numerous Classical greats such as Xenophon and Plato. This is not the not the subject of this article though. Instead what has drawn me towards to story was its continual mentions in political philosophy. In particular the tale has been used since the Ancient Greeks as a cautionary tale against what was deemed by Aristotle to be ‘Democracy’ but has been subsequently coined the ‘rule of the majority’. Such a fear can even be taken to be the cornerstone of conservative thinking, describing the fear of an unchecked populous and their ability to destroy the talented individual. Hence, I believe that to understanding right-wing thinking we must understand this story but also it exemplifies the role that stories have in shaping our political ideologies, helping us to connect with the philosophical debates that shape the world that we live in.

For those who are unaware, the tale of the trial of Socrates is a relatively short one. In around 399BCE the famous philosopher Socrates was put on trial by the people of Athens. His crimes were the ‘worshipping of false idols’ and the ‘corruption of the minds of the youths of Athens’. In the subsequent trial he was sentenced to death and, even though he had the opportunity not to, he died in his prison cell by drinking hemlock. These events were covered by many of Socrates’ followers but most famously Plato who wrote about the trial in the Apologia and his subsequent death in Phaedo. This is important because Plato would subsequently go on to write the Republic, one of the most famous works in Greek philosophy and a text that can be seen to be inspired by this tale. The Republic proposes an undemocratic society rule by ‘Philosopher Kings’ fearing that, if power was descended into the lower echelons of society, it would result in mob rule. This is a point also discussed by Aristotle who, in his work Politics who advocates for wealth qualification arguing that if too much power is given to the masses they shall fall behind a demagogue, leading to tyranny. To understand these two stances, we must understand the way justice was operated in ancient Athens. Trials were not like in modern law courts with each person having to make their own defences and, crucially, juries that consisted of 500 people in contrast to our twelve. Hence, these Athenian thinkers blamed Socrates’ death on these large juries, operating not soon after the humiliation of the Peloponnesian war and in a time of religious fanaticism (hence the accusation that Socrates worshiped false idols).

It is this blame that has led to the story’s continuing relevance as it is the begging of conservative, anti-democratic thought. To understand this, we must jump forward to the French revolution and ‘the Terror’. For the revolutions critics here was another example in which the masses had risen up and delivered a brutal form of justice, a form of justice that would go on to devour its own with the execution of Danton. Hence, Burke, motivated by the same fears as Socrates’ followers penned Reflections on the Revolution on France. In it he concludes, like the Athenians, that society should be governed by an elite and limited power should be given to the masses due to their due to their radical nature and, in doing so, created what has been deemed the foundation of modern conservatism.

However, of course what would be subsequently been deemed ‘the right’ has moved far beyond the arguments made by Mr Burke. In an age of universal suffrage, it is no longer acceptable for either philosophers and politicians to espouse the aforementioned anti-democratic sentiments and hence the right have advocated for a laissez-faire system more in common classically liberal view of politics. Even though this is still true the importance of the death of Socrates has still not left right wing thinking. The story represents one of the main desires for right-wing philosophers, the emphasis of the individual over the collective. To see this one has to look no further than the liberal philosopher John Stuart-Mill. Mill directly references the trial in On Liberty stating, “[t]his acknowledged master of all the eminent thinkers who have since lived […] was put to death by his countrymen, after a judicial conviction, for impiety and immorality.” What is important to note of this is the praise that Mill puts on Socrates as an individual, naturally therefore contrasting it with the ‘tyranny’ of the masses who put him to death. In this way Socrates has come to represent the talented individual who, because of his talent, is either shunned or rejects society. This figure is seen in other right-wing texts such as Jon Gault in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, another character who’s individual excellence is contrasted with the perceived mediocrity of society. Hence, Socrates’ influence can been seen less today in those who advocate limiting democracy but in the rise of Neo-Liberalism, a political movement that, through the shrinking of the state and working towards and atomised society, aims to benefit those excellent individuals from sacrificing their individuality for society, allowing for the justice of the individual over the collective.

The intention of this article is not to claim that everything goes back to the Greeks (although such a view would help to reassure me that I did not waste an A-Level!) but instead to demonstrate the importance of stories in shaping our political opinions. The reason that the trial of Plato continues to be referenced in political philosophy is that stories help us understand complex philosophical ideas. Human’s find it easy to empathise with characters and through this we understand their struggles whether that be in this case the perils of mass rule or the importance of individuality. Stories can be found in all political ideology, whether that be the importance of Peterloo and the Tolpuddle Martyrs in left-wing British thinking or the role that texts such as the Grimm’s fairy tales had in creating unified national identities. What is important is not to dismiss ideologies based on the construction of these stories but instead to celebrate them as it reminds us that political thinking is, at the end of the day, not scientific but human, meant to be understood and taken into action by real people, something by far easiest done by nothing more than a simple story.

Further Reading:

Aristotle. Politics

Burke, E. Reflections on the French Revolution

Mill, J.S. On Liberty

Plato. The Apology

Plato. The Republic

Rand, A. Atlas Shrugged

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