Was Socrates Anti-Democratic?

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

When people talk about Socrates, they typically refer to the leading character in Plato’s dialogues. This is because little is known about the historical Socrates beyond the fact that he wandered barefoot around Athens asking questions, an activity that got him executed for religious invention and corrupting the youth in 399 BCE. The relation between the historical figure and the Platonic character is debatable. In any case, Plato’s Socrates is most commonly read as a staunch anti-democrat. However, once one distinguishes between being opposed to democracy from theorizing the ways democratic society can fail, the relationship between Socrates and democracy grows more complicated.

The depiction of Socrates as an anti-democrat draws largely from the scathing critique he launches in Plato’s masterpiece, The Republic. There, Socrates famously characterizes democracy as the rule of the unwise, corrupt mob. Like children loose in a candy store, the democratic herd pursues pleasure only, rewarding sweet-talkers and flatterers with the power of political office, who in turn exploit politics for their own gratification. The result is injustice. Accordingly, Socrates says, democracy ultimately dissolves into tyranny — a population of citizens dominated by their basest desires, and an opportunistic ruler that manipulates them for personal gain.

Socrates’ critique of democracy is formidable. Notice, however, that Socrates is laying out a vulnerability inherent within democratic politics that no advocate of democracy can afford to ignore. In fact, the tradition of democratic theory is largely focused on identifying ways in which this vulnerability can be mitigated. And popular discussions today about disinformation, corruption, and incivility tend to concede much of Socrates’ case. The point is that giving voice to a standing weakness of democracy does not by itself make one an anti-democrat. One might argue that a crucial part of democratic advocacy is to engage in criticism of extant democratic practice.

Yet in The Republic, Socrates also lays out a vision of the perfect city, the kallipolis, and it is decidedly undemocratic. Kallipolis is an absolute kingship where philosophers rule over a strictly stratified society in which everything is exactingly regulated, from education, production, and conquest to art, diet, sex, and parenting. According to the standard line, that Socrates proposes the kallipolis as the paradigm of justice entails that he is an anti-democrat.

But the question of what to make of Socrates’ proposal in The Republic is vexed. According to many lines of interpretation, his “perfect city” is some kind of satire. Note also that even in Socrates’ telling, Kallipolis is ultimately unsustainable — it, too, is doomed to degenerate. In what sense, then, can it be called perfect? Finally, it should not be overlooked that the very inquiry conducted in The Republic would be forbidden in the kallipolis; in depicting the perfect city, Socrates has conspicuously written himself out, along the life of philosophical examination. Yet Socrates contends at his trial that a life devoid of philosophical examination is not worth living. What should we think of the lives of those living in the kalliopolis?

At the very least, then, the view that Socrates is anti-democratic is not as straightforward as it might seem. And it should be added that in Plato’s dialogues, one looks in vain for a full-throated endorsement from Socrates of any existing regime. One might as well conclude that Socrates condemns politics as such.

Yet that cannot be correct, either. One of the most striking things about Socrates’ thought is his conception of political obligation, as laid out in Plato’s Crito. After being sentenced to death at his trial, Socrates is jailed. Athenians typically were quick to execute, but in Socrates’ case, a religious observance intervened that required the city to delay his execution by several days. Waiting in his cell, Socrates is visited one morning by his longtime fried Crito, who has made arrangements for Socrates to escape to Thessaly, where he would be welcomed. In the dialogue with Crito, Socrates presents a notoriously stringent theory of the duty to obey the law. Socrates refuses to escape, on the ground that it would be unjust to disobey the laws of one’s city. Of course, in Crito, Socrates repeats his skepticism concerning the wisdom of his fellow citizens – he goes so far as to say that the mob cannot make judgments, but only “inflict things haphazardly.”

Despite this, Socrates recognizes the binding force of democratic laws.  He offers a few different arguments against disobedience. One likens the duty to one’s city to the duty to one’s parents; Socrates contends thus that law-breaking amounts to an attack on one’s city, just as overt disobedience from children would be an affront to their parents. In another, Socrates explicitly asserts that citizenship is the result of a “just agreement” between the individual and the city; as it is wrong to violate just agreements, it is wrong to break the city’s laws. What’s important about this latter argument is that the justness of the agreement is predicated on the availability to the citizen of familiar democratic rights. Socrates says he owes obedience because the city offered him opportunities to criticize and object to the laws. The laws, he says, even allow citizens to emigrate. At 70 years old, Socrates hardly ever set foot outside of Athens; thus, he reasons, he now owes obedience to his city’s laws.

Now, Socrates’ conception of the duty to obey the law is widely regarded as indefensible. Insofar as it divorces political obligation from the content of the prescribed laws, it denies that civil disobedience ever could be justified. Yet it is obvious that there are conditions under which disobedience is not only permissible, but obligatory. But the philosophical details of Socrates’ view on this matter need not concern us here. We are concerned with Socrates’ attitude towards democracy.

Socrates’ stance towards democratic laws, along with his account of what makes those laws binding, is difficult to square with the view that he is staunchly anti-democratic. In other words, if Socrates were a thoroughgoing anti-democrat, he would not recognize such a stringent duty to obey democratic laws. Yet he does.

A closing thought brings our two lines of reasoning together. Socrates clearly recognizes that he, himself, would not be welcome in the kalliopolis, his ideal city of perfect justice, as his method of philosophizing would be disruptive. And Socrates remains in Athens, despite having to face the sentence of death, a result of his practicing philosophy. The lesson is that philosophy isn’t welcome anywhere, really.  But in democracies, it, at least, is possible. People can make sense of what a philosopher is doing, the results can matter, and there’s room for the philosopher’s questions when posed to higher-ups. Plato represents Socrates in the Apology considering whether he should propose banishment as his punishment, and he refuses to do so. He says it’s not likely that anyone outside this democracy will have tolerance for his questions. He’ll be turned out every time elsewhere. This, of course, does not make Socrates an enthusiastic democrat, but it does mitigate what looked initially as strongly anti-democratic tendencies. The result is a kind of weak endorsement of democracy – given that we aren’t in perfect cities and we ask questions about justice and truth, democracies are the only places where it’s possible to square our questions with our obligations to follow the law.

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