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Dear Socrates

Dear Socrates

Having returned from the turn of the Fourth Century B.C. to the turn of the Twenty-First A.D., Socrates has eagerly signed on as a Philosophy Now columnist so that he may continue to carry out his divinely-inspired dialogic mission.

Dear Socrates,

According to my calculations, this is a significant anniversary for you. It was 2400 years ago that you were tried and executed (or drank the hemlock, if that is how it really happened). For that occurred in 399 B.C.; therefore the 300th anniversary was in 99 B.C., but the 400th was not until 2 A.D. That is because 1 B.C. was followed immediately by 1 A.D. And so, finally, 2002 is the 2400th anniversary of your (first) death.

I was wondering, then, if this would be an appropriate occasion for you to reflect on your trial.

Yours truly,
Menelaos Kaloyanides
Bethany, Connecticut, U.S.A.

Dear Menelaos,

You have indeed caught me at a moment when I am ripe to reconsider my trial, for, as it happens, I recently made my first visit to my native Athina since my return to the surface of the world. As I walked among the ruins of the ancient agora, where only the bright red poppies retained the vital appearance of that once thriving marketplace, I was naturally moved to re-live the whole proceeding. I even found my prison, a room carved out of a rock face not far from the base of the Acropolis. (I was amazed to discover a taverna called ‘Socrates’ Prison’. The food was not half bad, certainly better than my last meal!) It is to me, you know, not only a memory, but a fresh one, since the intervening millennia are not a part of my current consciousness.

As I think back to my trial, although I made light of it at the time, there were aspects of it which affected me deeply. I do not mean facing death, for my rosy hopes about that have been more than fulfilled by my present reincarnation (since I have the wisdom of the ages at my keyboard-tapping fingertips!). But it was utterly demoralizing to see my worst fears about politics realized. I had been right to avoid it all my life, yet I always knew that I was totally vulnerable to the whim of any malcontent who chose to complain against me. For dialectic is powerless against sophistry; indeed, it even becomes its plaything, as rhetorical tricks trump any efforts at sincerity and truth-seeking. Only a philosopher-king could resist its blandishments; the tyrant or oligarch or demos will succumb.

For example, at my trial, Anytus would wait for me to present a whole list of arguments in my defense, and then, picking on perhaps the weakest one, offer a refutation of it. But he would act as if he had overturned the lot of them! The audience seemed to be entirely taken in by this maneuver. Another ruse of my prosecutors was to raise some irrelevant or inappropriate issue, but if I sought to bypass the distraction, Meletus would pounce on this as evidence of my guilt; why else, he asked the audience, would Socrates wish to avoid the subject if he had nothing to hide? Perhaps the boldest tactic of all was to adduce as evidence against me something which clinched my own case! And yet, speaking with complete confidence, Lycon would draw a conclusion which not only differed from but was the exact opposite of what logic allowed him to draw. To my astonishment, the audience would be swayed solely by his manner of speaking.

And I was certainly wasting my breath on the accusers themselves, for they did not care a jot about my arguments; they were not even listening to them, except insofar as they had to strategize against them. For the reasons they gave to warrant their charges were not at all the reasons that motivated those charges; and yet it was incumbent on me to answer the former, for the sake of the audience who was to decide my fate.

I realize after reflecting on my trial that a defendant is automatically at a disadvantage. The very act of accusing someone will make others wonder what could have brought it about (and the more outrageous the accusation, the more credence will thereby be accorded it), while the very act of defending oneself has an air of unseemliness about it, since none of us is a purely innocent soul. Add to that our all having enemies whom we are especially ready to suspect, and you readily see that half the prosecutor’s job has been accomplished by the time the indictment has been drawn up.

Moreover, the plaintiff is free to pick and choose what to complain about, while the defendant must address those specific charges. This can sometimes involve having to explain things – circumstances, reasons, ideas, etc. – which would tax even the most patient and intelligent of jurors or judges. Prior to that, it can become a life-consuming burden on the defendant to try to recapitulate all of those details, including justifications for some of his or her most fundamental assumptions in life.

How onerous and wearisome and disheartening, then, is having not only to refute all the allegations, but also to undertake this labor knowing that you are just being toyed with by the accusers, and that the more you argue, the less the jurors will be able to follow or forbear what you are saying. That is why most lawsuits end in plea bargains or settlements; it has nothing to do with guilt or innocence but wholly with the defendant’s desire to stop being harassed and waging a futile battle. But it is also why I have at last concluded that refusing to yield to a prosecutor is an excellent metaphor for my line of work. For is not the practice of philosophy itself, therefore, like being on trial?

Yours as ever,

Readers who would like to engage Socrates in dialogue are welcome to write to Dear Socrates, c/o Philosophy Now, or even to email him at: socrates@philosophynow.org Socrates will select which letters to answer and reserves the right to excerpt or otherwise edit them. Please indicate if you wish your name to be withheld.

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