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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,

When you were imprisoned after your trial and awaiting the execution of your death sentence, your friend Crito visited you to inform you that arrangements had been made for you to escape into exile. He urged you to take advantage of the opportunity, but you refused. Do you now regret that you did not take Crito's advice?

Bill Walker, Essex

Dear Bill,

At first I dismissed your question. Have not Plato and Xenophon provided you with sufficient reasons for my having declined Crito's invitation? Even in the best of circumstances this life is but a pale shadow of reality, and there I was, a seventy-year-old man, with only decrepitude to look forward to. Besides, it is not easy to hit the road when you are that old, and I had the alternative of a quick and painless death. So why should I have fled, like some coward, from something I did not fear? Such considerations, both high-minded and ordinary, were enough to make me insensitive to my somewhat premature mortal departure, to prefer the fatal elixir to flight into exile, indeed, to welcome it.

Upon further reflection, however, I do find something of value in contemplating your question. Why choose leaving life rather than leaving Athens? I told Crito that I did not want to show ingratitude to the city that had nurtured me; I had benefited from its protections all of my days, so I should abide by its rules even at death. There is no denying, though, that my relationship to the city was problematical: Was I not its notorious gadfly? Yet I had coined that metaphor to express both my affection for Athens and the effect I hoped to have on it, since I saw her as a thoroughbred capable of noble achievements if she could but be roused to action by my stings.

Why Apollo chose me in particular to do the biting I will never know. But it soon enough became clear that to perform my task I must become unpopular, even despised, and hence remain somewhat of an outsider. I dared not seek high political office, for if I stayed true to my critical calling, I would make powerful enemies who might well cut short my efforts, or else I would simply be ignored - in either case, fail to achieve my aim. Alternatively, were I to compromise my way into power and influence, I would most likely end up co-opted, and so again fall short of the goal. Thus, I decided upon a relatively obscure existence, earning a modest living by practicing a trade. This left me free to be controversial.

But, then, was I not a kind of exile to begin with? Would accepting Crito's offer have done anything more than change the venue? This is what intrigues me now about your question. Why should I have shunned such a fate - I who had been an internal outcast ever since taking up my divine mission?

I will tell you, having thought about it more, that my original instincts were the right ones, but perhaps I had the wrong reasons at the time. I did not want to leave my home only to flee into irrelevancy. But since my recent return to the surface of the world, I have had the opportunity to reconsider all of my ways; and sometimes I have found them wanting. One thing in particular I would change is the confrontational manner of much of my dialectic. While serving to highlight arguments, to be sure, the method rarely persuades and typically alienates, even antagonizes one's interlocutor. People want only to eliminate, or banish, that which habitually stings them.

What is supposed to be the goal of dialogue? Am I playing to an audience? Perhaps they take pleasure from watching me sting my opponents; but isn't that more theatre than dialectic, debate rather than dialogue? The rational ideal, I now believe, is to appeal to one's interlocutor's faculty of reason (and to be receptive in like manner). Audiences tend to be swayed by non-rational factors (and to affect the 'actors' similarly), and so they shouldn't be our concern.

But is it a will-o'-the-wisp to expect even an interlocutor (even myself!) to be responsive to reason? For better or worse, that is the stage on which I choose to act (no matter how empty the theatre may be. Maybe it is all a rehearsal anyway). Therefore, the means of persuasion must be suitable to the setting. They must have a social component, they must engage; yet they must not toady, nor be false. Is there a technique for effecting all of this? Were there such, then I, the philosopher, would not always need to play the pesky crank nor, hence, have to choose between exile and death in order to keep faith with my vocation.

I think I have at last come up with a better job description than the gadfly, namely, the court jester. After all, philosophers are often funny, and always the fool! These are consequences of our forever examining fundamental assumptions; that is what makes us seem a threat to many people, but also what gives us our sense of humor and humility. The jester, meantime, is tolerated, even enjoyed; for his humor entertains, while his humility, which he displays in his very costume, does not intimidate. And the truly marvelous thing about the jester is that he is a part of the `system' or `establishment,' yet is employed for the purpose of providing a critical perspective on what everybody else is too timid to comment on. (The king recognizes the value of having this kind of input.) Were the philosopher to play this role, he could remain in the city (even in the government or the modern business corporation) but truly be himself - the fool who really knows he (and everybody else) is a fool - the wise man or woman who wears the dunce cap.

Yours as ever,


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