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II. Education and Politics

The uncompromising attitude of Socrates rendered it inevitable that he should come into conflict with the Athenian state, though it was not until Athens was definitely on the decline that his teaching was regarded as a serious danger. Even if the democrats had not suspected that there was an actual connection between Socrates and the aristocratic party, his criticism of the existing form of government, threatened as it was both from within and from without, might well have been regarded as profitable only to their enemies.

This is the natural objection to any unhistorical political doctrine, anarchistic or theocratic, which appeals to an ideal “rule of right”. The theory of rigid guardianship expounded in the Republic and the practical deification of Law in the Crito might be taken as decisive indications of the opposition of Socrates to anarchism. But, though there may be a difference in ethical conceptions, there is remarkably little practical or logical difference between the anarchistic and the theocratic positions. All our social and political difficulties will be solved, for the one, if we are governed by the spirit of equality and refrain entirely from oppression, for the other, if we are governed by the representatives of God and refrain entirely from disobedience. Neither view can give us any idea of how such conditions can be satisfied or even approached, how we can promote equality or recognise God's representatives. But each implies that the existing temporal power does not exemplify the rule of right, that it holds its position by oppression or usurpation. And thus both tend to support, and especially to be regarded by the ruling body as supporting, those political forces which are “in opposition” but are striving to secure domination.note

We can see, therefore, that it was natural for the democratic rulers to desire to suppress Socrates. But this is not to say that that desire was to their credit, or that severe criticism of their regime was not called for. Certainly “Be guided by what is good” is inadequate as a solution of political problems, but a scientific consideration of what sort of life is a good one (and, for that matter, of what constitutes oppression) is not politically and socially valueless. What gave particular force to the Socratic criticism was that the political ideas of the democrats were themselves quite unhistorical. The worshipful Athenian people, the sacred tradition of the city, were just as ideally conceived and reverenced as


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any metaphysical “Good” could be. The demonstration of the hollowness of these pretensions may have been historically inadequate and politically negative, but, as far as it went, it was logically sound. And the disinterestedness of Socrates's criticism of the democracy and its leaders, as well as of those professional educators who were called Sophists, made it doubly strong. To teach the youth to accept the customs of the city in which they lived may have been an essential part of the theory and practice of “getting on”, but it implied the existence of interested motives which such teachers were unwilling to reveal.

This fact alone gave Socrates an enormous dialectical advantage, and it was further increased, at his trial, by the existence of a political amnesty. In consequence the real charge of fostering aristocratic sentiments could not be brought, and the teaching of Socrates had to be attacked on religious grounds. Socrates pointed out in his defence that his accusers could give only the vaguest account of what his teaching really was, and he strongly denied that he was a teacher at all, in the sense in which they used the term. “If you have heard”, he says to the judges, “that I undertake to educate men, and exact money from them for so doing, that is not true; though I think it would be a fine thing to be able to educate men, as Gorgias of Leontini, and Prodicus of Ceos, and Hippias of Elis do.” In fact, if what these Sophists give is education, then Socrates is no educator, and he cannot be rightly accused of corrupting the youth by the inculcation of false doctrines, for he has never given doctrinal instruction to anyone.

But Socrates did not deny, but rather gloried in the fact, that he had striven by example and precept to inculcate the spirit of criticism, to encourage the questioning of received opinions and traditions; and nothing that the Athenians could do, he declared, would prevent his pursuing this task while he lived. “The unexamined life is not worth living”; to lead such a life is to be in the lowest state of ignorance, ignorant even of one's own ignorance. And therefore he would not cease to call upon the Athenians to give an account of their lives, as the facts of life would compel them to do even if they got rid of him.

The Socratic education begins, then, with the awakening of the mind to the need for criticism, to the uncertainty of the principles by which it supposed itself to be guided. This was utterly opposed to the doctrines of the democrats. What education meant for them is seen in the Apology, where Meletus, the leading accuser, describes Socrates as the sole perverter of the youth, while everyone else improves them; and again in the Meno, where Anytus, the democratic leader (who was really responsible for the prosecution, but kept in the background because the issue was nominally not political but religious), warns Socrates not to be so free with his criticisms of Athenians and their ways. According to these good patriots, to be educated meant simply to become a good Athenian, and that was brought about by enjoying the society of the respectable citizens of Athens.

Now the position of Socrates is simply that this uncritical acceptance


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of tradition, this acquiring of Athenian virtue, is no education at all. There is no virtue in being an Athenian, no peculiar and superior Athenian brand of goodness, but goodness is the same wherever it occurs, and what passes as good at Athens may not be really good at all. It requires the most careful scrutiny, and until this process of examination has begun, education has not begun. To see the full force of this criticism, we may substitute Australia for Athens, and imagine Socrates saying, “You think there is some virtue in being Australian, and that a good Australian is better than a good Greek or Italian, but what you call goodness is just your own ignorance.” Clearly such talk would be infuriating, clearly also it would be very hard to answer; for it would only be by way of afterthought, as a mere “rationalisation”, that any suggestion as to what the local virtue consisted in, could be made.

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