Lesson from Athens: Democracy ≠ Freedom

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One of the recurring themes here on The Hannibal Blog is the tension between two distinct concepts that we (in the West) usually conflate nowadays:

1) democracy and

2) freedom.

They often appear together, but they are not the same, and indeed they can on occasion become enemies. America’s founders understood this, and they distilled this insight in large part from their meticulous study of ancient (Attic and Roman) history.

Athens, as the first and to this day the “purest” democracy (James Madison’s term), offers one lesson about how democracy can threaten freedom: through the “tyranny of the majority”. (That is also Madison’s term, although Madison, with his incredible acuity, foresaw an even greater greater danger from the mixture of democracy with “factionalism”, which ancient Athens did not yet have.)

So here are my notes from Bettany Hughes’s The Hemlock Cup that pertain to this paradoxical relationship between democracy and freedom in ancient Athens. (The Hemlock Cup is the excellent biography of Socrates I recently reviewed here.)

1) Ostracism

It seems that whenever members of the species Homo Sapiens congregate, the groups they form tend to ostracize individual members. In the context of this dynamic, democracy is merely a way to administer the resulting injustice, as is evident from the word ostracism itself.

The ostraka (see picture above) were shards of pottery which the Athenians used as ballots to vote individual citizens out of their city, ie to exile them. The victims (among them illustrious ones, such as Aristides and Cimon) need not have done anything wrong or bad. It was enough that a plurality (with a minimum of 6,000 votes, according to some sources) were sufficiently pissed off at them.

The exile lasted ten years. Hughes (emphasis mine):

… ostracism came to be a handy way of eliminating the unsuccessful, or unpopularly successful, individuals. The piles of scratched ostraka in the Agora Museum in Athens are hard evidence of lives ruined; ‘Kallias’ is ostracised in c.450 BC, ‘Hyperbolus’ in 417–15 BC and another ‘Sokrates’, ‘Sokrates Anargyrasios’, in 443 BC….

An interesting twist is that the practice of ostracism was most popular during Athen’s most “enlightened” period, ie its Periclean Golden Age. Once Athens started losing the war against Sparta and flirted with oligarchic juntas — roughly from 415 BCE onwards — the practice gradually disappeared.

As Hughes says (emphasis mine):

… shamed by their defeats in war, confused by the freedom their own political system gave them, the Athenians from around 415 BC onwards chose oppression over liberal thinking. After c.415 BC there was no further need for ostracism – because now the state could harry and censor at will. Socrates’ death came at the end of more than a decade of intellectual and political persecutions. We must never forget that although Socrates is the most famous victim of Athenian oppression, there would have been scores – perhaps hundreds – more like him whose names have escaped the historical record.

2) Scapegoating

When something went wrong (plague, defeat, etc), the Athenians also picked some compatriots for permanent expulsion. (The word for such a victim was pharmakos, which is the root of our pharmacy. Go figure.)

This practice subsequently became known as scapegoating.

Scapegoating, democracy and religion formed a potent cocktail of institutions in Athens. Hughes:

I think it was no coincidence that Socrates was killed in May/June – the ancient month of Thargelion. Every year at this time, in an obscure ritual known as the Thargelia, two people – either male and female, or representing the male and the female by wearing a necklace of black and green figs respectively – were exiled from the city as scapegoats. Flogged outside the city walls, their expulsion was a symbolic gesture. The Athenians believed their sacrifice would prevent pollution and stasis from seeping through the city-state.

3) Demagogy

Our word democracy (= people power) is closely related to our word demagogy (= people leading). The two concepts were indeed very close in Athens. And the Athenians were quite aware that in a democracy it is not necessarily the best argument that wins, but the best oratory.

Thus Hughes quotes Thucydides (one of my ‘great thinkers’, for his ruthless depiction of Athenian “realism”), who reports a speech by one Cleon in the Assembly (emphasis again mine):

In speechifying competitions of this sort the prizes go to the spin-doctors and the state is the loser. The blame is yours, for stupidly encouraging these competitive displays … If something is to be done in the future, you weigh it up by hearing a good speech on the subject, and as for the past, you judge it not from your own first-hand, eye-witness experience but from what you hear in some clever bit of rhetoric … You all want to be the first to make a speech, and if you can’t do that, you try to sit there looking as though you are one step ahead of the speaker … you demand changes to the conditions under which you live, and yet have a very dim understanding of the reality of those conditions: you are very slaves to the pleasure of the ear, and more like the audience of a paid public speaker than the council of a city.

4) Leadership

When democracies are unlucky, they fall prey to demagogues. When they are lucky, they have leaders. Athens, for a while, had such a leader: It was Pericles. Although he was technically no more than one among equals in the Assembly (this was a pure democracy, after all), his opinions held sway.


Hughes (emphasis mine):

Pericles, because of his position, his intelligence, and his known integrity, could respect the liberty of the people and at the same time hold them in check. It was he who led them, rather than they who led him, and, since he never sought power from any wrong motive, he was under no necessity of flattering them: in fact he was so highly respected that he was able to speak angrily to them and to contradict them. Certainly when he saw that they were going too far in a mood of over-confidence, he would bring back to them a sense of their dangers; and when they were discouraged for no good reason he would restore their confidence. So, in what was nominally a democracy, power was really in the hands of the first citizen.

5) American parallel: populism vs elitism:

It is tempting, of course, to compare ancient Athens with America today. Try, for instance, to swap the words America/American with Athens/Athenian in this passage from Hughes:

This tension between oligarchs and democrats, between aristocrats and the people, charged Athenian politics and culture, and infected its very atmosphere. And Socrates would be both an exemplar and a victim of Athens’ great dilemma: in a true democracy, where power and responsibility are shared equally amongst all citizens, what is the place not just of the good, but of the very great? …

… Socrates goes further, he suggests that tyranny is spawned by the liberty of all in the demos. Here he is the first to suggest that liberty is an illusion fostered by the great to keep the many happy. Come then, tell me, dear friend, how tyranny arises. That it is an outgrowth of democracy is fairly plain….

Two other takes on Socrates + a lesson

Prostitutes could confidently ply their trade by slipping on customised little hobnail boots and casually strolling up and down the alleyways. In the dust their shoe-nails would spell out akolouthei – ‘this way’, or ‘follow me’.

Isn’t that a great little detail? When strung together densely in one single narrative, these details transport you to a place and a time, to Athens during the life of Socrates. Kudos to Bettany Hughes for achieving such intensity in The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life.

And oh, what an Athens it was. This is the Athens of aromas and stink; of sweat, blood and sperm; of tanners pissing on their hides and Adonises oiling themselves for war games; of parades, assemblies and battles; of sex, slavery and domesticity; of democratic group-think, individual liberty and massacre; of humanity at its highest and simultaneously its lowest; of strutting health and vile disease.

Regarding disease, for example, is it not obvious that a plague such as the one that fell on war-torn Athens during Socrates’ prime must have influenced the subsequent events and the worldview of Socrates and his compatriots?

[W]ithin a year the disease danced its way through the caged population of Athens and across the hot streets; 80,000 died. At a cautious estimate, at least one-third of the city was wiped out. It had started in 431 BC.

Imagine one third of Americans, 100 million, dying in one year from a plague.

But we also need the lighter moments. For example, that time (beloved by artists, as above and below) when Socrates’s wife doused him with piss:

Xanthippe, raging after one argument with her maddening philosopher spouse, pours the contents of a bedpan over Socrates’ head; ‘I always knew that rain would follow thunder,’ sighs the philosopher, resignedly mopping his brow.

So Hughes accomplished something big: She brought that world-historical character, Socrates, to life. It’s a scandal how dull ‘philosophers’ (as opposed to historians) usually make Socrates. We needed this ‘biography’. She makes reading about Socrates easy and fun and personal. That is what I tried to do with Hannibal and the other characters in my own book.

(And, by the way, a reminder: Don’t ever assume that a thread on The Hannibal Blog has ended just because it slumbers for a few months. Both the series on Socrates and that on the Great Thinkers will continue. I have big plans for them.)

Another recent book on Socrates and the great philosophers is Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche by James Miller. It tackles a selection of thinkers, one per chapter:

  • Socrates
  • Plato
  • Diogenes
  • Aristotle
  • Seneca
  • Augustine
  • Montaigne
  • Descartes
  • Rousseau
  • Kant
  • Emerson
  • Nietzsche

Since three of my own favorites were on the list, I bought the book. (The three, each with his own tag here on The Hannibal Blog, are Socrates, Diogenes and Nietzsche.)

Miller, too, sets out to write a biography (as opposed to a philosophical essay). His conceit, if I may paraphrase it, is to examine the lives of those who examined their lives.

Put differently, he wants to see how various philosophers lived and whether they just ‘talked the talk or also walked the walk’. Did their lives reflect their love of wisdom (= philo-sophy), or where they hypocrites?

Socrates, in this exercise, comes off splendidly. He embodied the love of wisdom and lived accordingly, searching for the good and treasuring simplicity. From Miller:

Socrates prided himself on living plainly and “used to say that he most enjoyed the food which was least in need of condiment, and the drink which made him feel the least hankering for some other drink; and that he was nearest to the gods when he had the fewest wants.” … Abjuring the material trappings of his class, he became notorious for his disdain of worldly goods. “Often when he looked at the multitude of wares exposed for sale, he would say to himself, ‘How many things I can do without!’ ” He took care to exercise regularly, but his appearance was shabby. He expressed no interest in seeing the world at large, leaving the city only to fulfill his military obligations.

And, of course, he died for his principles.

Diogenes, whom I admire so much for his extreme simplicity/freedom, arguably became the caricature of this Socratic lifestyle:

While Diogenes regarded Plato as a hypocrite, Plato saw Diogenes as “a Socrates gone mad”—and by Plato’s standards, he certainly was.

Masturbating in public and living in a barrel can give you that kind of reputation.

Plato and Aristotle arguably started that other trend, that of the hypocrite philosopher, talking/writing sophisticated words while, one way or another, selling out in private life. By the time you get to Rousseau, the hypocrisy becomes hard to stomach (I’ll leave that for another post some day.)

Storytelling lesson: unity vs fragmentation

But that’s not what I was mainly pondering after reading these two books, one after the other. Instead, I was reflecting why one author succeeded in a big way, and the other possibly failed in a small way.

Hughes, in The Hemlock Cup, succeeded big. She tackled an intimidating subject (intimidating because Socrates is not exactly an under-covered subject) in an innovative way and rose to the challenge by presenting one single, unified tale, no part of which a committed reader would dare to omit or skip.

By contrast, Miller, in Examined Lives, put forth a list, then broke his narrative into discrete chapters for each person on the list.

There is a problem with such lists: Why this list, and not some other list? Why Augustine and not Aquinas? Why Descartes and not Spinoza? Why Montaigne and not Montesquieu? Et cetera.

The result is that the reader, as he progresses, is increasingly tempted to skip the chapters that don’t interest him to speed ahead to those chapters that do interest him. I confess that I did that. Life is short, and I was a bit bored on some pages.

A good author reins in his readers as a charioteer steers his horses. He has readers asking the questions he, the author, is asking, not some other question (such as: where is Hegel?).

What could Miller have done differently? He could have woven the various lives together so that each chapter was about a theme, not an philosopher, and the various philosophers that interest him reappear at the right places.

My choice

You should take this with a grain of salt, because I have a reason to be thinking such thoughts.

A few years ago, when I first contemplated the book I wanted to write, I also envisioned it as a collection of chapters about various individuals that interested me (around the theme of triumph and disaster being impostors). (Hannibal was to have one chapter, Scipio one, Einstein one, Roosevelt one, et cetera.)

When I pitched that to an agent, he suggested that a better (but also more challenging) book would thread the lives together into one unfolding story, so that readers would not be tempted to disassemble the book and cherry-pick among the chapters. That structure would also force me to do the hard work of actually teasing out the themes concealed in these lives.

I took that advice. You can soon (on January 5th) decide whether I succeeded at it or not. For now, I simply observe with fascination how other authors approach this choice.

Was Socrates an atheist?

Toward the end of my three-page article about “Socrates in America” in the Christmas issue of The Economist, there are these two lines:

Socrates almost certainly was an atheist. As was his wont, however, he cared more about debating, with a man named Euthrypho on the steps of the courthouse before his preliminary hearing, what piety even meant.

(This refers to one of the two charges against Socrates at his trial, which was disbelief in/disrespect for “the gods of the city.”)

By the placement of these lines, and by the word count I devoted to them (1% of the total words in the article), readers should be able to tell how interested I, as the writer, was in this particular point.

Ie, not very.

To quote I.F. Stone in The Trial of Socrates on the matter:

It was the political, not the philosophical or theological, views of Socrates which finally got him into trouble. The discussion of his religious views diverts attention from the real issues….

But I should have known better. After all, the word atheism appears!

It is a word that makes many people, but Americans in particular, go ballistic. Indeed, it is something of a Rorschach test: Mention it, and people immediately project their ideas, fears, and beliefs into the conversation. Whatever the conversation was about, it is now about something else.

Readers react

One of the online commenters, somebody named “RPB2”, tries to refute the possibility that Socrates was atheist by quoting him (presumably from English translations). Thus Socrates says in the Apology:

For I do believe that there are gods and in a far higher sense than any of my accusers believe in them. And to you and to God I commit my cause, to be determined by you as is best for you and me.

And in the Phaedo, he says:

In this present life I believe that we most nearly approach knowledge when we have the least possible bodily concerns and are not saturated with the bodily nature, but keep ourselves pure until the hour when God himself is pleased to release us.

In the Republic, he says:

[Society’s leaders] must be able to see the one in the many, to appreciate and realize the great truth of the unity of all virtues, have a genuine knowledge of God and the ways of God, and must not be content to rest on faith in traditions, but must really understand. Only in this way can they order all things for the benefit of all

From this RPB2 concludes:

You really have to work to find an atheist here; and thus, sadly, one can see that this article indicates that erudition often does not equate to understanding.

Another commenter, Michael  Bessette, offers RPB2 his support:

… Socrates repeatedly invokes not only gods, but “the god”, as in this famous passage from the Apology: “Athenians, I honor and love you, but I shall obey the god rather than you” (29d). Socrates further asserts that he has been specially chosen by “the god” to persuade the people of Athens of their ignorance (23b) and that abandoning this mission would mean also abandoning his god (30a)…

And a reader named Robert J. Farrell from Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, wrote in a letter:
… the most extraordinary statement in the piece is its labeling Socrates an atheist.  No one can read the accounts given by Xenophon or Plato without recognizing the philosopher’s piety.  His own pilgrimage to Delphi attests to this; and many, many statements exceptionlessly confirm it.  Indeed, he comes across as being very close to monotheism; for, as my tutor remarked years ago, whenever in the Memorabilia he is most earnestly referring to the divine , he speaks of “the god” (ho theos) rather than of “the gods” (hoi theoi).  To call Socrates an atheist for his coolness towards the conventional polytheism of the state is as misleading as it would be to so label Jesus because of his confrontation with the priesthood of the Temple…


Let’s examine some of these points.

First, what does it prove if Socrates uses, in the writings of Plato or Xenophon, the word “gods”? Not a whole lot, I submit.

All sorts of atheists today scream Goddammit every time they hit the rush hour, and atheist starlets stammer Ohmigawd, ohmigawd when accepting their Oscars. We have to distinguish between a word as figure of speech, as familiar trope to facilitate communication, and as intended content.

What I find curious in the quotes above is the capitalization of the word God. It’s a loaded capital letter, to say the least. In fact, let’s use this occasion to parse some terms:

1) Monotheism:

Is it possible that Socrates believed that there was only one god? I believe we can rule this out. The Greeks did not have that concept. (Even the Jews, who invented it, were just developing at this time, in the century following the Babylonian captivity, as Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God explains quite well.)

2) Atheism:

Admittedly, the same is true for our modern concept of atheism–ie, the Greeks did not have that concept. If somebody was “godless”, that meant he had been abandoned by one god or goddess or another. It did not meant that he denied their existence.

3) Polytheism


Polytheism is how the Greeks (and most of the world at the time) understood divinity. Alas, this is a concept that has become quite alien to us (unless you happen to be, say, Hindu), so we are the ones struggling to understand it.

Polytheism was an infinitely stretchable and flexible spiritual instinct. A polytheist had mental room not just for many gods and goddesses but for new gods and for other people’s gods. Even the Greek pantheon included many gods and goddesses (Aphrodite, eg) “imported” from Mesopotamia and thereabouts, for instance.

4) Pantheism

So polytheists were also, by implication, pantheists. They had an expandable pantheon of gods, and divinity was to be found everywhere and in everything.


Put differently, gods and goddesses were often personifications of things. Zeus/Jupiter/Thor/Baal of thunder, for example. Hermes of humble door-thresholds, among other things. Hestia of the hearth. Helios/Apollo of the sun. Kronos of time (→ Chrono-logy). And so on.

Names of things in effect became potential divinities. Sophia could be thought of as a goddess of wisdom, tyche (Roman fortuna) could not just mean luck but be the goddess of fortune, and so forth.

(In fact, I.F. Stone, believes that Socrates’ indictment for “impiety” referred specifically to two such personifications/divinities: The “gods of the city” of Athens may have been understood to be Peitho, a personification of “democracy” and thus a political concept, and Agora, which meant not only marketplace but also assembly, and thus dovetailed with Peitho.)

It was, in other words, a rich and metaphorical way of expressing ideas and telling stories. Eloquent people at the time were as unlikely to avoid using tropes of divinity as we are today to avoid metaphors.


Having said all that, there was something interesting that happened in the Greek world at around this time, and we might think of it as the beginnings of “science”.

The Greeks traditionally relied on their religion (their “myths” to us) to explain the world. And they relied in particular on the corpus of stories in Homer and Hesiod.

Thus, if summer turned to winter (a perplexing process, if you think about it) it was because Persephone returned to her husband Hades, thus making her mother Demeter, the goddess of fertility and grain, so sad that she turned the earth barren for half a year. If somebody went into a rage and killed innocent people, it was because a jealous god or goddess possessed him temporarily (eg, Hera possessing Hercules). And so on.


But, starting about 200 years before Socrates’ trial, some (mainly Ionian) Greeks rejected these mythological explanations and tried to use direct observation of nature (physis in Greek, as in physics) and reason (logos) to explain the world.

These were the so-called “pre-Socratics”, such as Thales, Anaximander, Pythagoras and Heraclitus. They wanted to know what things were ultimately made of (fire, earth, water, etc) and how they changed. They wanted to understand the world better and differently.

So they ignored the gods. I don’t think they boycotted temples and sacrifices and other fun cultural activities, just as even Richard Dawkins today might sing along to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. But the gods ceased, for them, to explain anything. In that sense, you might say, using a modern term, that they were atheists.

Pre-Socratic Socrates

Now let’s talk about Socrates. The first thing to know about him, as silly as it sounds, was that he spent the first half of his career as a pre-Socratic philosopher. (Obviously, “pre-Socratic” is a term we invented, not the Greeks). This is to say that he also tried to do “science”, to inquire into the nature and causes of the physical world and its phenomena.


This is the Socrates, aged about 40, whom Aristophanes mocked in his comedy The Clouds. In that play, Socrates runs a “thinkery” where he examines how far flies jump and how they fart–presumably, with the Athenian audience, including Socrates, in stitches.

And Aristophanes has the Socrates in that thinkery argue that “Zeus does not exist.” “If no Zeus, then whence comes the rain?” he is asked by Strepsiades, a country bumpkin. Socrates offers another explanation for rain, and Strepsiades admits that he had always thought it was “Zeus pissing down upon earth through a sieve.” But at the end of the play, he burns down Socrates’ Thinkery, saying “strike, smite them, spare them not, for many reasons, But most because they have blasphemed the gods.”

Now, folks, this is humor. I get that. But there is more to it. Aristophanes was describing a new (proto-atheistic) worldview in a hilarious way. Socrates would, twenty-four years hence, at his own trial, say that this (ie, The Clouds) is where the charge of impiety originated.

The Socratic “turn”

At about the time of The Clouds Socrates had a wrenching midlife crisis. Apparently, he came to believe that he was not very good at being a philosopher–ie, he became frustrated by his inability to explain nature satisfactorily.

So he made his famous “turn”: away from questions about nature and toward the humanistic subjects of ethics, politics and meta-physics (literally: “beyond nature”). It is not much of an exaggeration to say that he invented all three as subjects.

Hades and Cerberus

But he brought with him his pre-Socratic proto-atheism, by which I mean his tendency to ignore myth and gods as explanations for anything.

For example, on his own deathbed he gives a moving (but confusing) speech about death and the immortality of the soul. As it happens, this should not have been necessary: Greek religion gave detailed information about what happened after death. You took a gold coin with you, went down to Hades, past Cerberus, the three-headed guard dog. Then you gave your coin to Charon, the boatman, who ferried you across the river Styx, where you would henceforth hang around as a shadow. Lots and lots of heros (Hercules, Odysseus….) had already been down there and come back to tell us about it.

But no, Socrates had none of that. No Thanatos, no Hades, no Charon. He used his reason alone. Again, I consider that proto-atheist.

Theism, Deism …

Did Socrates ever go one step further and deny spirituality or divinity? No. I doubt he was interested in that.

Did he really believe, as he claimed when addressing his jury, that his own personal daimonion (“little divine thing,” whence our daemon) talked to him to warn him of danger? Perhaps, perhaps not.

Did he consider himself a proto-atheist? Perhaps, perhaps not. The one time he could have spoken about the matter explicitly, during his trial, he reverted to form (ie, Socratic irony and dialectic) and maneuvered his accuser, Meletus, into defining atheism as both believing in unorthodox gods and no gods at all, which is impossible at the same time. He was a wise ass, in short.

So we do not know, and we will not know.

What we can agree on, I believe, is that Socrates was a highly unusual man with unusual opinions and extremely unorthodox views about everything, including religion. Whatever he believed, neither atheists nor theists today can claim his support to wage their ongoing battle.

In this respect, in fact, Socrates reminds me of another non-conformist I admire: Albert Einstein. Einstein also studied physis and inadvertantly ended up “beyond” it, in meta-physis. And Einstein also had notions about religion that still divide lesser minds today. Was he an atheist? A believer? Everybody wanted to know. So Einstein penned an answer, which concludes (page 387 in this biography):

The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I am a devoutly religious man.

I believe Socrates might have said the same exact thing.

The Procrustean Bed, again

And so, I have spent as many words again on that one little sentence as I wrote in that entire article. Would I change the little sentence?

I’ve posted before about the Procrustean Bed that page layouts represent to writers: you must either stretch or, more often, amputate your text in order to fit the space an editor gives you. Socrates in America: Arguing about Death was not an article about religion. It was about how we talk to one another and the tension between individualism and democracy. Religion only came up en passant, and so I was forced to commit a journalist drive-by shooting.

When I said

Socrates almost certainly was an atheist

I had all this and more on my mind. Given another chance, I would say

Socrates may have been an atheist

or perhaps

Socrates’ views on religion were unorthodox to say the least.

And then I would have done just what I did: I would have moved on.

WordPress: Plato’s Academy Today

Some of you may have noticed that my thread on Socrates was going strong all through the summer and then, seemingly, stopped. Something similar, you might have thought, occurred with my thread on America.

Well, no, the two threads did not stop. They went into overdrive, albeit in a different form. Indeed, they became a story–what we call a “Christmas Special”–in the new holiday issue of The Economist.

It is called “Socrates in America: Arguing to death“. Please think and smirk as you read it (which also, of course, goes for almost anything you read on The Hannibal Blog).

(A similar, though less pronounced, process led to my other piece in that issue, a sort of polemic against direct democracy. That idea occurred to me after amusing myself, here on The Hannibal Blog, in my thread on freedom, with posts such as this one on James Madison.)

Thank you!

But what am I saying! Nonsense. It was not I, amusing myself. It was we, amusing ourselves.

And that is the point of this post. It is, first, to say Thank You to you, who come here to comment, to teach me, challenge me, tease me.

Those of you who have been readers for a while will see yourselves in my story in The Economist. Cheri will recognize, in the ninth paragraph, the gem that she herself sent to me. Jag will spot, further down, his pun on the Greek word idiotes. Mr Crotchety, who offends the gods by not having his own blog, will see his own worldview–irreverent, humorous, incisive–throughout the piece, since he trained me well in it. Phillip S Phogg, with his deep erudition, subtly worn; Solid Gold Creativity, with her sensitivity and philosophy; Thomas StazykThecriticalline and the Village Gossip, with their almost poetic thought processes;  Peter G, with his outrageous wit; Steve Block with his precision mind; Douglas with his forging inquiry; …. the list goes on and on and on.

Those of you who come sporadically, such as Vincent and Kempton; those of you have come recently, such as Man of Roma, Susan and Dafna; those of you who disappear for a while and resurface months later; and the many, many more who don’t comment at all but just read: all of you have enriched this blog and my mind and my writing.

You are all now co-authors of stories in The Economist and of a book in the making.

Academy 2.0

Which leads me to another insight: Socrates was wrong about one thing, as he himself would gladly concede if he were given a WordPress account: the written word is not inimical to good conversation; text is not necessarily dumb and dead.

What we do here is dialectic, defined as good conversations. What we have here is the Academy that Socrates’ student Plato founded in Athens. Where they ambled in circles and joked and teased and inquired and contested and thought, we do the same thing here on our blogs, minus the ambling.

And there is something new and special about these conversations. I have debated in many settings–the famous “Monday morning meetings” at The Economist in 25 St. James’s Square, London, being a notable one.

When you practice dialectic in those settings, in the flesh, you are always aware who is speaking as well as what is being said. Often this adds an impurity into the mental flow. Are we paying more attention to somebody of higher status or rank, less to somebody who is new? Are we distracted by a twitch, a snort, a sniffle? A curve, accentuated by a fabric, reminiscent of a …

Here there is none of that. With one single exception, I have met none of you in person. (And is that not amazing?) Here, the only thing that matters is what, not who.

Put differently, here in this modern and more pure academy, we all feel safe:

  • safe to contradict ourselves,
  • safe to take intellectual risks,
  • safe to fail and advance,
  • safe from embarrassment.

We exist on our blogs, between which we skip and link and flit like thoughts across neurons, through our words and associations, our minds and thoughts alone.

Here, we are each equal with Socrates.

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“Ought” vs “is”: Socrates and Callicles


One of the most momentous conversations in history you’ve never heard about took place between Socrates and a man named Callicles, and is recorded in Plato’s Gorgias. It is a surprisingly moving portrayal of a man who tries to describe the world as it is but, upon prompting, reveals how much he yearns for the way it ought to be. Although it took place 2,400 years ago, the conversation is timeless and very modern. I think it describes many of us today.

Lions and sheep

As usual, Socrates is going around asking people to define “justice” and to expose, as was his wont, their confusion and ignorance. Callicles decides to have a go.

He proceeds to give a sort of genealogy of the concepts just and unjust. The law of nature is that the stronger and better dominate the weaker and worse. The lions feast on the sheep. That is natural justice. (Compare: Thucydides, writing at about the time the dialogue would have taken place, about the genocide of Melos.)

The weak, the sheep, don’t like that, of course, so they get together and call what the strong do unjust. By implication, what they themselves do is just. Collectively as a herd, the sheep want to dominate the lions. So whereas nature is on the side of the strong and the lions, convention is on the side of the weak and the sheep.

Influence on Nietzsche

To many of you, this rings a bell. Yes, this is where Nietzsche got his ideas for his Genealogy of Morals. Nietzsche took his metaphors of lions, sheep, herds, slaves and so forth from Callicles, then spun his theory. It was that the sheep banded together to invert the natural concepts of good and bad, strong and weak, motivated by a festering rage for which Nietzsche used the French word ressentiment.

Relevance to Darwin

Socrates being Socrates, of course, he goes on to needle Callicles about the precise meaning of words in order to poke a hole in his argument. He asks Callicles to clarify the terms “better” and “stronger”. Are they the same?

Callicles has to admit that they are not. And off they go, debating what that means.

Today, of course, we know that Callicles was looking for a better word: not strong or good but  fit. Not fit as in ‘toned from the gym’ but as in ‘survival of the fittest’. The fittest, according to Darwin, are not the strongest or the best but the most adapted.

The law of nature that Callicles refers to is therefore evolution. It is the tautological observation that those who are better adapted to the prevailing circumstances will leave more of themselves (ie, their genes) behind than those who are worse adapted.

Gibe at democracy

Callicles and Socrates go on to mock democracy (Athens was an even more direct democracy than America is today). Democracy to them is the inversion of nature, the herd of sheep ruling the lions, the weak dominating the strong, the inferior getting their revenge on the superior.

Yearning for what ought to be

But the dialogue between Callicles and Socrates becomes more moving than anything Nietzsche did with it. That’s because during the conversation it becomes clear that Callicles is a sophisticated and sensitive man who’s trying to describe how the world is while simultaneously being sad about it and yearning for how things ought to be.

He’s confused and bitter, about many things. He’s angry at Socrates for needling him, but also because he already foresees (correctly, of course) that the democratic herd of sheep will condemn the lion Socrates. And he hates himself for having to suck up to the herd, to the Athenians, to make his living.

He also hates seeing the fit succeed whether or not they are also good. In other words, he has the ideal of justice in his head as though it were an archetype. Like most of us, he’s frustrated. That’s all that Plato definitely establishes in this dialogue.

Alcibiades: cad, charmer, hero, foil to Socrates


I’m finding myself intrigued in the extreme by a figure from antiquity as colorful as Hannibal: Alcibiades. He is such a good character, he might be worth another book.

Why? Mostly because he was a (bad) student of Socrates‘, and indeed the perfect foil for the great old man:

  • Socrates: ugly. Alcibiades: gorgeous.
  • Socrates: wise, deep, profound, intellectual, curious. Alcibiades: confused, cynical, shallow, but clever!
  • Socrates: interested in justice. Alcibiades: interested in himself.
  • Socrates: tried to teach Alcibiades inner values. Alcibiades: tried (and failed) to sleep with Socrates

Let me give you an abbreviated and simplified biography of this man. (One reason why many people never learn to appreciate history is that many teachers get bogged down in boring detail. So let’s not make that mistake today.)

Alcibiades, his father having died young, was raised in the home of his uncle, Pericles, the greatest statesman of Athens, which was in turn the greatest power of Greece. Alcibiades was thus a rough equivalent of, say, a Kennedy heir in the 60s and 70s–a party boy in a powerful family.

On the eve of Alcibiades’ own entry into Athenian politics, Socrates took an interest and, using his customary Socratic irony (in which Socrates pretends to be less than he is), got Alcibiades to talk about what he wants Athens to do, in the process exposing him to be the confused young man that he was.

Alcibiades, being good-looking (and very much the ladies’ man, of which more in a minute) and charming, rose politically. He became a general in the Peloponnesian War, one of two to take a huge invasion army to Sicily in what was to be one of the dumbest pre-emptive strikes in history.

Just after they sailed, however, the Athenians discover that somebody had, apparently as a prank, broken off all the erect phalluses on the statues of Hermes, which was sacrilege. This was exactly the sort of thing that Alcibiades got up to when he was drunk, so he was presumed guilty. (Then again, he was such an obvious culprit that he may have been framed.) So the Athenians sent another ship after the invasion fleet to arrest their general and bring him home for trial.

Alcibiades did not like that idea and defected to … Sparta! The enemy. Because he was so charming, the Spartans accepted him, and Alcibiades helped them defeat the Athenians. But then it was found out that Alcibiades was sleeping with the wife of one of the Spartan kings, so he made a hasty exit.

Next he went to Persia, Athens’ other enemy. He charmed them, advised them …. (you get the pattern).

Such was his charm and charisma that, after having been a traitor to his native country so long, he then persuaded the Athenians to take him back! For a while, he became their general again. But then he fell out again and crossed back over the Hellespont to another kingdom.

He was sleeping with a girl there one day when his political enemies (he had amassed a few by then) surrounded the house. Alcibiades grabbed a dagger and, possibly naked, attacked. He died in a hail of arrows.

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Socrates and the “town hall meetings”

Lest any of you think that I have abandoned my thread on Socrates, far from it!

Indeed, the reason that you haven’t heard much lately from me about the great and controversial and perplexing man is that I’ve decided to do a big piece on him in the Christmas issue of The Economist (large parts of which we actually produce in September).

So am I thinking about him? Every day, especially this week, as I cannot avoid, no matter how much I try, the news about these alleged “town hall meetings” on health care.

Town hall meetings?



Oh, please. This is what the thread on Socrates has been about: Good versus bad conversation, debate that wants to find truth and climb higher versus debate that wants to win, to debase, to obscure.

PS: As I post this, I am downloading yet another lecture series by The Teaching Company on Plato, Aristotle and Socrates

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Richard Meier’s modern Acropolis


Did Richard Meier, the architect of the Getty Center in Los Angeles, explicitly intend to build a modern acropolis?

I’m almost sure that he did. This is the effect his superb architecture has. The museum’s contents–ie the art inside–is fine. But what makes the Getty Center a destination is that it is, well, what the acropolis of Athens would have been for Socrates: a space for civilized humanity. It has great Feng Shui.

Instead of sitting on a hill, the Getty Center, like the acropolis, seems to rise out of, or to be, the hilltop. It blends into its topography and simultaneously defines it. It signals itself to the people below as the obvious place to go up to. To the people already inside, it is a natural, light-filled place to dwell. It keeps you in, makes you reflective and social, encourages you to meander and talk.

It is simple and yet subtle, the equivalent of a Brancusi sculpture or of the kind of writing I like.

The easiest way to know that it is good architecture (= the way to know good writing) is that it does not make you tired. You can walk through the Louvre, for example, and feel all dutiful about being cultured, but within minutes you want to yawn, sit, sleep, escape, open a window. The Getty Center, and all good art in any medium, makes no such demand on you. It says “check your sense of duty at the door and come in: the culture will happen all by itself; you will feel refreshed after.”

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Socrates on trial


And here he is, the great man, dying of the hemlock coursing through his veins. Throughout this thread on Socrates, we’ve been pondering all the ways in which he–his life, his thoughts, his arrogance, his eccentricity, his genius and humor–speaks to us today, timeless in his relevance. But of course we always knew what happened next, the full stop that ended the sentence of his life. His trial and martyrdom is rivaled, in notoriety and historical importance, only by that of Jesus.

It is more than just another fact in the text books: It is one of the greatest mysteries in all of history, and an eternal challenge and reprimand to democracies and freedom lovers everywhere. The question is:


Why did the Athenians, the most ardent freedom lovers of all time, turn against their gadfly when he was 70 years old? For his whole life they had tolerated, mocked, enjoyed, hated and loved him. But then something changed. One of their 500-man juries, the sort that they were so proud of, found him guilty of two silly–laughable, stupid, banal!–charges and gave him death.

Let’s try to find out what was going on.

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Socrates’ Athenian jury

Orestes and the Furies

Orestes and the Furies

Slowly, in this thread on Socrates and his surprising relevance to us today, we are leading up to his jury trial, the most famous in all of history. So a word is in order about Athenian juries.

I am skeptical of jury-systems, as I have hinted before and as I may eventually spell out more coherently. But that is neither here nor there today. Today I want to look at what juries meant to the Athenians, and how they worked.

Above, you see a strapping but unfortunate lad named Orestes being beset by the Furies. He is one of the main characters in the Oresteia, a famous trilogy of tragedies by Aeschylus, the oldest of the three great Greek playwrights (the others being Sophocles and Euripides). It is a heart-rending story about a truly haunted family that, generation after generation, goes from bad to worse until it ends …. in the world’s first jury trial!


Very quickly: Several generations of disastering downstream, a king (Agamemnon) continues the pattern by sacrificing his own daughter (!) so that he can take an army to Troy to get his brother’s wife (Helen) back. More than a decade later, he comes back–victorious, as it were. But his wife is humping another man and hates her husband for killing her daughter and takes revenge: she stabs him in the bath tub.

Now the disastering moves on to the next generation: The remaining children of Agamemnon and his wife, Orestes and Electra, must avenge …. well, whom exactly? Their sister, whom their father had murdered? Or their father, whom their mother had murdered? They settle for the latter, and Orestes kills his mother. The Furies are beside themselves and go to work on Orestes.

What could possibly happen next? It would seem that everybody has to keep slaughtering everybody forever, were it not for…

The Athenian Jury

Aeschylus now did something very cheeky. The Trojan War took place, if indeed it did, around 1250 BCE. It was already ancient mythology for the Athenians of the fifth century BCE. But Aeschylus modernized the story. He added a patriotic Athenian twist: They do not keep slaughtering one another. Instead, they settle things in an Athenian jury trial!

The jury, as it happened, was split. Half thought Orestes was in the wrong, the other half thought he had had no choice. So Athena herself had to join in to break the tie. She voted to acquit, thus setting the precedent for all subsequent Athenian trials that a tied vote meant acquittal.

And so the days of blood feuding were over. The scary Furies turned into something else: the benevolent and beautiful Eumenides (“kind ones”), whom the Athenians would revere among their gods. Civilization had begun. Athens had begun! She stood for freedom and justice.


A few other things are worth mentioning:

  1. The juries were huge, numbering about 500. Sitting on juries and in the assembly was all that Athenian citizens did (slaves and women did what we would call work).
  2. Anybody could bring an indictment.
  3. There were two rounds of voting: First, to decide whether the defendant was guilty or innocent of the charges; second, if guilty, to decide between the punishments proposed by the prosecution and defense.

But the most important point is the one you’re supposed to infer from Aeschylus: the Athenians loved their jury courts, their assembly, their free speech, their democracy. The worst thing that could happen would be for something to call these institutions into doubt. And that’s what happened when an Athenian jury put Socrates to death.
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